The main amount of hype surrounding Bad Times at the El Royale centred around the prophet-like, half-dressed, malevolent presence of Chris Hemsworth, but this film is more than being about just one man. Drew Goddard’s follow-up to his excellently self-aware horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, had high expectations of being similarly creative.
The El Royale is a somewhat forgotten hotel situated on the California/Nevada border – literally the border runs right through the middle of the hotel – complete with separate rules for each State, beautifully informed and presented by the only on-site worker Miles Miller (Liam Pullman). From the opening scenes as we arrive and circulate around the guests all waiting for some assistance, there is something not right about it all: The vacuum salesman (John Hamm), the priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and the abrasive hippie Emily (Dakota Johnson).
At 140 minutes, Bad Times at the El Royale takes its time to put things in place and, maybe a little bit too long, to introduce the characters, give them some depth and back story and eventually set things in motion that progress the plot onwards. Slowly but surely the intrigue builds and as Goddard returns to his voyeuristic tendencies from his previous film, we realise that this time the surveillance isn’t used for controlling the narrative but to control after the narrative. Whilst the pace is laboured in the first half, it remains the better half of the film. The characters are varied and each has an interesting story to tell. Through Goddard’s choice to work through the characters, identifying each of them by their room number, we get flashbacks of back story of why they find themselves in this place at this time or why they are like they are. Using the same timeframe but building the story from all the guests’ viewpoints is really well used and leads to a greater understanding of the situation. But as we find out everyone has something to hide here, some story or secret that they’ve kept hidden.
Visually Bad Times at the El Royale is superb. The style of the time is wonderfully recreated in a late 1960s feel. The wardrobe, decor and especially the soundtrack all provide additional confirmation about the era that we are in. The tone shift as the storm comes in is perhaps used a bit too frequently in films but it works really well here as the initial innocence is overwhelmed by the arrival of the maelstrom: The pouring rain, trying to wash the hotel clean but this dirt is well and truly integrated with the foundations of this place and has been for years. It’s going to take a bit more than a torrential downpour to clean up this mess!
With the storm comes Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) and this is where Bad Times at the El Royale starts to falter. All the good work done previously starts to unravel as the focus now revolves around this prophet-like preacher of his own words. In the bringing together of all the cast, coupled with an upturn in threat, should help in building towards something exciting and tense but it doesn’t work. Deaths are dealt out far too quickly and without tension.
Jeff Bridges shows again why he is consistently rates as one of the best actors around as he gives a measured and emotional performance as Father Flynn, who is slowly losing his mind and all those close to him. At times you find yourself both rooting for him and against him. Cynthia Erivo is a revelation as Darlene, her place in this den of vipers seems to be so out-of-place with her disposition but she puts in a performance of nerve and composure that belies her initial role, again surprising the audience. John Hamm, for what he gets to do, is efficient at showcasing his obvious talents and it is a shame that he doesn’t have more to do in this. Dakota Johnson is passable as the brusque older sister Emily to Rose (Cailee Spaeny), the brainwashed young girl Emily is trying to rescue.
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Chris Hemsworth is obviously having a blast as this character of Billy Lee as he gets to be serious, aloof and menacing. He does well enough and is a real presence, but it is unfortunate that the film starts to break down with his introduction. Liam Pullman is the one that ties everyone together as the embodiment of the hotel and he does a great job. Miles is, at times, engaged and at others like he isn’t being paid enough for the shit he has to deal with. His initial nervous and disinterested disposition takes a turn towards the end of the film and it does shock and feel a little out-of-place.
Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t manage to carry the initial promise of the first half and if you can get past the slightly overlong runtime there is a decent film in there, backed up by some great performances, shocking moments and intriguingly interlinked plot as everyone’s hidden truths start to be revealed.