[REVIEW] “Bad Times at the El Royale”

Bad Times at the El Royale stars Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, and Chris Hemsworth. It is written and directed by Drew Goddard (World War Z, The Cabin in the Woods).

The theater… no, not the theatre, but the theater. That special place you go to be entertained, fascinated, or inspired by works of visual art created by passionate individuals (most of the time). I love cinema, and the thought of seeing a movie in the theater used to give me so much joy. Nowadays? Not so much. It wasn’t my love for the movie theater that changed rather the films themselves. This whole year has felt like a movie wasteland, with very few releases seeming like they were worth my dollar. I’ve often wondered if we were in a film recession of some sort, where most of what is pushed out is built off something else (sequels, reboots, remakes). There hasn’t really been anything I’ve yearned to see this year outside of a few flicks, and my search for the best of 2018 seemed rather bleak. That is, until I saw Bad Times at the El Royale.

Many weeks ago, I saw a trailer to this feature that sparked my interest. It’s a mystery/thriller set in a 1970’s motel that surrounds a variety of characters, all with a rough past. Not only did the story attract me, but the style as well. It seemed to be something the Coen Brothers would be involved with. My expectations were high for this one, and surprisingly enough they were higher than other films this year (including Avengers: Infinity War). I’ve been desperate for something original and gripping; I’ll take whatever I can get at this point, and thankfully Bad Times delivered.

Simply put, Bad Times at the El Royale is a film I would make. The cinematography, characters, dialogue, direction, and story flow spoke to me on a level that no movie has yet to achieve this year, and here’s why…

For starters, this is a beautiful piece of cinema. The costuming, atmosphere, and physical set this story takes place in is amazing. I’m a sucker for period pieces, and am currently writing a feature film set in the 60’s/70’s myself, so it was quite an inspiration to see what these filmmakers did with the time. The motel is quite a peculiar one, being separated into two sections: California and Nevada (on the line between two states). I don’t know what symbolism this had to the story, but even if it was a frivolous detail, it was still cool. These little things are what adds flavor to a story, giving it depth and character.

Speaking of which, the characters… goodness gracious, were they spectacular – and diverse at that too. We have a priest, back-up singer, vacuum cleaner salesman, hippie, and bellhop (the tagline may say “seven strangers,” but you only get to see the other two at the halfway point). So many different ways to approach this story, and the way it is cut together shows the different vantage points of these characters. Flashbacks give backstory, and the whole thing is pieced together in a way that we focus on one character at a time, making the story non-linear. You’ll see one scene where two characters interact and wonder why one of them is acting funny, only to get your answer later in the feature when we shift our focus to that person, causing that scene to potentially be played again. While this isn’t a new approach, it still felt fresh. The performances that give life to these characters are amazing, with some noteworthy ones by Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, and Lewis Pullman. Everyone was interesting in their own way, with all their backstories starkly differing. Some characters were better than others, but overall I enjoyed the ensemble a lot.

As for story, it couldn’t be any better. The concept alone should be enough to get anyone to fill the seats in the theater, but in case you aren’t convinced, let me explain why the story does so well. For one, this is a character piece, entwined with an ultimate conflict that comes to a head in the final act. We not only get to know who these people are, but in doing so we piece together the events that take place at this motel. It’s a good way to have the audience discover details rather than just make things linear and expository. Secondly, it is brutal. No one is safe, and all bets are off. While I was able to predict a few minor details, there were several things that caught me off guard, solely because I’m used to films not being so bold. As time goes on, this movie gets more gruesome, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats (I for one had my eyes glued the entire time). Lastly, it is original. I have not seen anything like it (possibly films that may have inspired it), especially within the past five or ten years. It’s carved out it’s own style and approach that makes it completely different than what’s being put out now. While I mentioned earlier that the trailers reminded me of a Coen Brothers direction, the final product resembled a mix of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, making for a night worth remembering (at least for me).

It goes without saying (at this point) that I love Bad Times at the El Royale. So much was offered in the two hour and thirty minute experience, and I’ll truly never forget it. As with most films though, Bad Times does have its flaws. Some specifics include the character of Billy Lee (Hemsworth). While I thought his persona was pretty cool, his backstory was rather… boring. I didn’t really care for what he brought up, as it felt like too sharp a contrast for what main themes were in the film as a whole. Of course, he ties in to the hippie character Emily Summerspring (Johnson), but she was given her own past with her sister that held more weight to me than what went down with her and Billy Lee. The last issue that comes to mind is kind of spotty, as it concerns the whole meaning of this film. There are a lot of themes surrounding Bad Times, including redemption, regret, government secrets, right and wrong, and purpose. It’s hard to tie down what Goddard was specifically gunning for, and by the end I can see where most audience members may question “what is the point?” It’s not so cut and dry for me, as I think most of these themes were balanced well; I will say, however, that I wish there was a strong theme leaned on by the ending of the story. We are given closure to almost all of the characters (besides the hippie girl, which would honestly be another issue for most), but I think we could’ve been given more in terms of the over-arching lesson to be learned.

All in all, Bad Times at the El Royale is an amazing, entertaining, and thrilling picture that boasts all that I love as a filmmaker. It’s a character piece worthy of being seen, and I implore everyone to go and check it out.


Harrison Dove-Green is a staff writer for the Daily Runner.