Movie Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’


Director: Drew Goddard

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman

Plot: A priest, a singer, a salesman and an angry Southerner are checked into the once great El Royale hotel by the lone, skittish employee. Everyone is hiding a dark secret, leading to a night of subterfuge, kidnapping and murder.

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Review: Last week we saw Venom, and it felt like a superhero movie from the late 90s. Now we’re talking about Bad Times at the El Royale, which also feels like a movie from the same era, a time where indie cinema was pumping out kitschy crime capers packed with dry humour, shocking violence and retro influences. Everyone was following in Quentin Tarantino’s fetishised footsteps. 

Not that El Royale feels like a knock-off or a pretender. It’s unique in this decade and well crafted. It comes from Drew Goddard who has gone from a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Alias and Lost, directing the downright brilliant Cabin in the Woods before creating Netflix’s Daredevil. He’s a talented man but this is a rare case of him writing and directing his own concept. 

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The entire film revolves around the titular El Royale, a hotel that straddles the state line between California and Nevada. Set in 1969 the once popular locale, frequented by the rich and famous, is all but deserted with only Myles (Pullman) working the desk, bar and housekeeping. Vacuum cleaner salesman ‘Laramie’ Sullivan (Hamm), Father Daniel Flynn (Bridges), session back-up singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) and aggressive flower child Emily Summerspring (Johnson) all check in and retire to their individual rooms.

Things get suspicious right off the bat with Sullivan sweeping his room for bugs (of which he finds many) and Flynn pulling up the floorboards of his room. Sullivan also discovers a set of passages leading to double sided mirrors providing a view into each room. He’s shocked to see Emily bringing a bound, gagged and unconscious girl into her room. As things escalate a body count builds, a dangerous cult leader makes an appearance. and we learn more about each person’s backstory.

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Goddard begins with Noir but pulls in a tangle of styles and influences. It doesn’t feel like a jumble though, it’s built with purpose. We have a group of larger than life characters in a distinctive setting, caught up in each other’s dark agendas. Much of the fun of the story is trying to guess what they’re all up to and who’s going to survive the experience. 

Rather than leaning into a flashy style Goddard maintains a steady hand, creating a slow burn mystery where we see events from different perspectives. As much as we enjoy a movie that takes its time to tell the story and build an atmosphere there are some scenes that really drag. This becomes problematic in the third act when things should be escalating and instead it starts to plod.

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On the whole this is a cool film. There’s plenty of slick, sweeping camera movements, a soundtrack of soulful motown classics and an ensemble of proven and new talents. It certainly feels like a film made out of creative ambition, not driven by marketing research. With the long running time some of the slow burn gets almost entirely snuffed out but overall it leaves a good impression.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN

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