Review: Bad Times at the El Royale
Updated: Nov 21, 2018
Bad Times at the El Royale is difficult to review, not only because my opinion is indecisive, but also because it’s hard not to spoil. Nonetheless, here goes.
This story evolves through multiple genres as the acts progress, which makes it both interesting and difficult to criticise against standards . The opening scene is set in what we can assume is a room at the El Royale, which lathers itself in the noir genre. Simply put, a man, with a case, a cigarette, a trilby, and a rusty old radio. Can’t get more noir than that.
The characters that show up ten years later to the same hotel, are from all different walks of life, you could say they are archetypes of the 60’s.
Already the audience sense an Agatha Christie-esque vibe, expecting a typical murder mystery, like 'Murder on The Orient Express', or a game of 'Cluedo'. But that’s not exactly what we get.
The theme of choices is layered throughout this film, comically beginning with the choice to stay in California or Nevada and ending with a set of twisted, darker choices. The characters all have reasons to choose certain rooms in the hotel, some more innocent than others. This story also plays on an interesting concept for all filmmakers, in that it literally puts people in boxes to observe like lab rats. This displays them in their most vulnerable state and reveals secrets they would rather remained hidden. The story really begins to pick up pace once these boxes are shattered both figuratively and literally.
Mostly, this film focuses on the sins we all carry deep inside us. Summarised when Miles (Lewis Pullman) confesses “I’ve done horrible things” to which the Priest (Jeff Bridges) says “So has everybody. Shit happens, so get the whisky.” Throughout the whole film, the character of Miles Miller is desperate to confess his sins that are withheld from the other characters and the audience. This is just one of the ways director, Drew Goddard builds tension. When Miles finally gets to repent for his sins, I personally felt disappointed by the lack of punch there. I definitely expected a far more twisted and shocking reveal to be burdening him. In hindsight though, I think the nature of this reveal links back to Billy Lee’s (Chris Hemsworth) speech, “It’s a game. It all starts with a simple choice. Which side are you on? Right? Wrong? God or no God? Red or black?” which at first sounded like righteous gibberish to me. On a second glance though, perhaps there is a huge allegory appearing here. What gives us the right to pick whether we are good or bad? Especially in the context of war, which is the subtle backdrop to this film. Moreover, does Chris Hemsworth's "Red or black" scene in the third act make him a monster, or a representation of the people in power, gambling with our lives in the game of war? Bad Times at the El Royale leaves the audience questioning what makes a person right or wrong.
Although upon first watch I’m not sure whether this film achieves what it sets out to, it’s certainly orchestrated beautifully enough to fool most. The cinematography and acting are both sublime. The tracking shots are executed perfectly, especially the mirror reveal scene tracking Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm) accompanied by the beautiful voice of Darlene Sweet. The imagery and some of the dialogue made for really enjoyable film-making.
El Royale also gave way to an amazing actress you might not be familiar with yet. But you will. Considering she was in the middle of an all-star cast, Cynthia Erivo who is most familiar with the Broadway stage, completely captured the audience with her screen time and created some of the most electrifying scenes. Her relationship with the priest was particularly gripping, not to mention the set up for a hilariously unexpected moment. Moreover, there is a short conversation between Darlene and Billy Lee (Hemsworth) that might be one of the most profound in the whole picture. Credit must go to the screenwriter here too.
Alongside Darlene, Jeff Bridges’ character of the “priest” was one of the most interesting because he’s a walking controversy. Even though he’s a criminal on paper, his backstory and dialogue made him unbearably likeable (although this could just be ‘The Dude’ coming through).
One thing that left me unsettled about this film was it's cut throat attitude and often shocking confidence to kill off characters. It felt gritty because it skipped the clichés and I appreciated that because if there’s one thing that gets on my nerves, it’s that 'gunpoint moment' in a film when the characters have a little chin wag first. Just kill the guy already. That’s what Goddard went for in The El Royale. However, the effect of the sudden deaths in this film were unfortunately short-lasting. The sad truth is, I just didn’t care enough about the characters in the first place. This is probably due to the backstories which I actually found to be lazy. There were few characters I cared about and the rest were disposable in my mind. I’m sure there’s more than one way to make the audience care about even the smallest characters but definitely in this story it could have been achieved with better backstories. Also, I personally felt like Goddard tried to go for a Tarantino effect by cascading the stories and replaying them from different points of view, but the fact is, Tarantino would have done it better. All I’m saying is that with 140 minutes of air time, you’d think they could have crafted more complex characters.
But I definitely don’t mean to discredit director Drew Goddard, this film in its own way was complex and intriguing. I can imagine some people will hate it while others might call it one of the best films of the year. Although I personally found it to be a slow burn, for the most part I found myself engrossed and I appreciated the confidence to play around and break tropes of the mystery genre. Maybe upon second watching, this film will feel more like a resolved and complete piece in my mind. But for now, I can recommend it based simply on the excellent cinematography, Oscar worthy acting and just because it’s something a little bit different.
Trailer is linked below,