Intriguing, but Insufficient: Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale is an interesting film. Drawing on similar neo-noir roots as July’s Hotel Artemis, Bad Times at the El Royale throws a bunch of misfit characters together in an unsettling setting, watching what happens as their secrets unfurl and they fall apart in one another’s company.

Naturally, everything in Drew Goddard’s tense thriller is not what it seems. Every character has some sort of secret buried below their calm exteriors, every plot has about eight different directions that it MIGHT veer off into, and the hotel itself is manned solely by a young, jumpy caretaker who clearly has plenty of his own issues to deal with alongside those of his cryptic guests. Heck, even the very hotel itself is split right down the middle by the state dividing line between Nevada and California, divvying up the amenities between the bright glam of the Hollywood state with the greed and corruption of Vegas country.  

Tonally, Bad Times is a great achievement. It’s entirely shooting for the revival of noir-esque cinema that we’ve seen with the likes of Blade Runner 2049, following an ensemble cast as characters with murky backstories uncover one another’s secret lives. Coupled with this overall tone comes a vivid colour palette and set design that oozes lavish, classic American style in every shot, allowing Bad Times to nail its aesthetic perfectly. This tight formal construction suggests that Bad Times at the El Royale is a real passion project for writer/producer/director Drew Goddard. It almost feels like a B-movie; a brief prologue shows us that the El Royale hotel is no stranger to criminal activity, and then the movie runs with criminal activity as its one through line. Conflict is imminent, it’s just a case of when it will arrive.

Chris Hemsworth as Billy Lee (source=https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6628394/mediaviewer/rm1348879104)

Since Bad Times is distinctly character-driven, Goddard has assembled an all-round excellent cast. Jon Hamm is perfectly comfortable as blustering vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan, Jeff Bridges plays travelling priest Father Daniel Flynn with an understated tenderness and Cynthia Erivo embodies struggling Blues singer Darlene Sweet with grace and poise. However, the true standout performance is Chris Hemsworth’s turn as antagonist Billy Lee, a charismatic but truly malevolent cult leader that Hemsworth tackles with surprising ease and finesse. Every single actor carves out a space for themselves, even if a decent chunk of dialogue itself feels relatively throwaway – it’s clear that we’re meant to be interested more so in these characters’ actions, not their words.

These characters play such important roles that Goddard chooses to centre different arcs around each of them. These function as narrative “episodes”, for lack of a better term. Each follows one character’s interaction with the hotel and the other guests, uncovering increasingly more sinister secrets as they go. More often than not, this is a satisfying compartmentalisation of narrative development, with almost every episode coming to an abrupt halt by way of an unexpected twist. These include, among other things: surprise early deaths, double-crossing, anarchistic cults and surveillance sub-plots, just to name a few. Each guest’s episode reveals something unique in the story, but maintains the balance between knowing enough and too much effortlessly so as to prevent the creation of dramatic irony. 

Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale (source=https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6628394/mediaviewer/rm4095373824)

However, this episodic structure is far from perfect for this ensemble set-up, leaving the pacing sluggish at times. A few of the “episodes” felt wholly unnecessary, and the twist endings of each in a film that has more twists than M. Night Shyamalan having a nightmare start to wear thin, especially when (as sometimes happens) we are watching the same scene play out, just over the shoulder of a different character. Bad Times mid-section is left feeling rather bloated for precisely this reason; we start seeing three or four inter-lacing narratives come together, but this requires a lot of cross-pollination from multiple, previously self-contained, narratives at one.  Sure, the characters are compelling enough that seeing their diverse reactions is interesting, but there’s no reason we really need to re-live some of the story beats two or three times.

When it obeys its noir roots, Bad Times is an excellent thriller, keeping you on your toes as it veers from character to character. However, as it transcends the restrictions of the genre into a more overblown action finale, Bad Times loses itself, having not had enough time to fully establish the “actual” antagonist of the film as the plot tries to tie itself together in a less-than-satisfying final act. It’s precisely this reason that I think Bad Times would have benefited from having had room to breathe as a mini-series. Some characters, as mentioned, are left feeling somewhat under-developed (especially the neurotic concierge/bartender/caretaker Miles). It may well be a paradox to cry out for additional information about characters who only really function as vehicles for unfolding mystery, but there are characters that could benefit with additional exploration, as opposed to some of the information that we see multiple times: Billy Lee’s cult could easily be the focus of an entire episode in its own right. In doing so, his overblown appearance would have far greater stakes as we would know precisely what the anarchic leader was capable of.

Left to right: Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times (source= https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6628394/mediaviewer/rm3256513024)

Overall, Bad Times at the El Royale is a fun ride, if you don’t think too hard about it. It takes the audience on a wild ride that will continuously shock you at every time, leaving you wanting more from each and every performer. However, some pacing and structural issues let down a narrative that has good ideas at its heart but could function a lot better with just a little bit more run time and re-writing to really bring its characters to life. There’s a dense, unwinding narrative here that’ll satisfy any wannabe super-sleuth, but you might come out feeling a little bit disappointed if you expect more meat on your characters respective bones.

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