Director: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris
Length: 141 minutes
Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) is a neo-noir film that focuses on the stay of seven strangers at the El Royale hotel by Lake Tahoe around 1969. The El Royale is a bi-state establishment in which clients can choose whether to lodge in Nevada or in California, the only difference being that California costs 1$ more, ‘because it’s California’. These characters hide secrets and create mysteries throughout the film, and the El Royale itself will turn out to have a darker history than one would assume.
The film itself begins showing us the interior of a hotel room in frame, the camera remaining still throughout the scene, and a man shot after burying a bag under the floor tiles. We can already assume that something sketchy will form the basis of the plot just from this first scene. It is ten years after this event that the seven strangers find themselves at the El Royale. The first guests enter the hotel lobby, waiting to speak to the concierge, and in their chattering we discover the glory days of the El Royale, which ended when it lost its gambling license.
Here we find the first of our seven strangers: Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disguised as a Catholic priest, the struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), the vacuum salesman Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), and eventually both the concierge Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and the ‘hippie’ Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Later, we will also get to know Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny) and Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).
The film’s progression after the initial scenes takes an interesting approach to show us the stories of the characters and of the hotel by diving the narrative in different ‘chapters’. This is important for the viewer to get a glimpse at every character and attempt to understand them; nevertheless, due to the amount of characters and events in the plot, it becomes almost impossible to give the same importance to all the seven strangers. For example, we learn more about Father Flynn and Darlene Sweet than we do about Emily or Rose. This also leads the viewer to be more likely to empathise with certain characters over others.
The direction of Drew Goddard stands out from the beginning, and it shows an appreciation for maintaining symmetries in shots; in particular sequences, one can’t help but admire the framing. The structure of the film also leads to numerous flashbacks in the characters’ lives before getting to El Royale. Another significant addition to the structure is the change of focus after significant scenes; for example, after Darlene hits Father Flynn in the head, the scene changes abruptly to the scene revealing Seymour Sullivan’s identity as an agent of the FBI trying to retrieve FBI equipment from the hotel. This technique aids the sense of mystery of the film and attracts the viewer, who is gaining a lot of information all at once but at the same time desires to know ‘what happens next’.
Nevertheless, the film itself can be disappointing perhaps exactly because of its structure; we could say that the first and second act appear more interesting and captivating to the viewers exactly because they are looking forward to reach the ‘climax’ of the film and have all the characters’ secrets interwind with each other. But when we reach the third act, and Billy Lee’s character finally appears, the overarching plot line turns out to be disappointing. As a viewer, I spent the first half of the film constantly wondering what the ‘big finale’ was going to be, and when I actually got to it, the turn of the story didn’t impress me particularly, especially Billy Lee’s character.
Billy Lee is presented to us only halfway through the film and initially only through flashbacks; we find some type of ‘cult leader’ who brainwashes the people that stay with him, including Rose, and is ready to kill when things don’t go this way. Particularly because of the subject matter, perhaps more attention should have been given to offering the audience a detailed account of this ‘cult’ and Billy Lee’s role. Furthermore, while Chris Hemsworth performance is definitely significant, the direction mostly focuses on Hemsworth’s physical appeal.
Every time he’s on the screen, Hemsworth is either wearing an open shirt or no shirt at all; I believe that this lend the character and the scenes he was involved in an air of the ridiculous. For example, Billy Lee’s wearing a super-open shirt as he’s threatening and shooting people in the third act. While his character is based partly on his charisma, in this particular scene Billy Lee’s presentation takes away credibility. Nevertheless, the brilliant cast aids the film, as the performances are what really remains in the viewer’s mind. It isn’t a surprise to see an outstanding performance by Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm or Dakota Johnson, but in addition Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo truly shine in this picture.
Overall, the concept behind Bad Times at the El Royale remains very interesting and appealing. The cast’s performances definitely stand out, and some of the directorial choices really hit home. An additional mention goes to the soundtrack that particularly fits the tone of the film. Nevertheless, the treating of Billy Lee’s character and part of the film’s structure take away from the potentially amazing experience the film could have been.