Six years ago, a little film came out called The Cabin in the Woods, which though well received by audiences and critics, made a little too much money to technically be considered a cult classic, even though it certainly feels like one. It was directed by a guy by the name of Drew Goddard, who had until then been strictly a screenwriter and has worked on such projects as Cloverfield and The Martian. Now that his Sinister Six movie never happened, he’s since turned his attentions to developing an original project with the title Bad Times at the El Royale, along with his Cabin in the Woods star Chris Hemsworth. Which reminds me, that since their previous collaboration was filmed in 2009 and later went into release purgatory due to MGM filing for bankruptcy, it has been nine whole years since not only they worked together, but since Goddard has directed a feature film. Yikes. Regardless, Bad Times seems almost destined to take the same sort of path, in that it won’t be fully appreciated until it hits shelves or streaming or however people get their fix, seeing as it’s already royally (get it?) bombed at the box office due to its errant weirdness, insofar that it’s not a recognizable property and difficult to market to broad audiences. In fact, I think people will use this as an example of audiences being unreliable to come out for good, original movies like they did two years ago for Shane Black’s The Nice Guys. And like that film, I think Bad Times is a little overrated in response to those who have actually seen it, but it can’t be denied Goddard’s firm grasp on the ethos of its setting and the general aesthetic that pervades it, with some terrific cinematography done by Seamus McGarvey to ensure that fact. Don’t let the all-star cast fool you; this is an auteur film through and through, something that both benefits and detracts from the project as a whole. Even if it doesn’t come full circle by its denouement, this is an entertaining and fascinating movie, one which may only have needed to be trimmed or restrained a tad for it to be truly special. In its final form, Bad Times is clocking in at 141 minutes, certainly channeling its inner Tarantino, but without the fast-paced editing and snappy dialogue to punctuate it, Bad Times unfortunately feels its length. Which is a shame, because it may just have all the thematic depth to classify it a classic, and it may just take a second watch to truly appreciate it, but on the outset, it feels like more of an “and then” movie instead of a “because,” if that makes any sense. Still, definitely more unique than anything you’ll see playing right now.
Set in 1969, Bad Times at the El Royale centers on the El Royale, a bistate hotel that sits perfectly on the border of California and Nevada, playing into the distinction as a selling point. It suddenly becomes the epicenter for a collection of mysterious strangers, whose individual stories and baggage make for one bloody and cathartic conflict. The lone employee on staff being the war veteran and heroine addict Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), he successively checks in the likes of: Donald O’Kelly (Jeff Bridges), a paroled convict returning to recover an old score hidden beneath one of the room’s floorboards; Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a soul sister traveling to make herself a new life; Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a hippie who is in the process of kidnapping her sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny) away from a deranged cult; and Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), a do-gooder, undercover FBI Agent sent to investigate the El Royale. Things get complicated very soon as their paths intertwine and people get hurt, but it only gets worse from there as cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) and his followers are already in hot pursuit of the two Summerspring girls.
They may be billed in a certain order, but there is no one single lead in Bad Times at the El Royale. I guess a simpler way of putting it would be to say that it’s an ensemble film, allowing you to choose who to root for and who to despise. In as such, the film dedicates a certain amount of time to each single character, making sure to provide them a proper backstory and subsequent motivation, much in the same way that if you read a Game of Thrones book the chapter titles are simply letting you know which character is the focal point of the events. As such, it jumps around quite a bit between past and present, going back to certain scenes multiple times to show each character’s point-of-view and their personal events preceding them, up until the point that all the characters coalesce in one location. To hammer home the Tarantino comparison even further, it’s a lot like Pulp Fiction in that sense, though probably not as masterfully executed. It’s likely that casual viewers will get frustrated with the plot doubling back on itself so often, and not offering enough substance to justify it. Granted, a lot of scenes happen concurrently, and editing it in such a way would be near impossible, but there are some instances whereby I imagine it could have bridged that gap somewhat to speed things along more fully.
Still, this is one stylish movie, one I couldn’t have imagined it having been made for any less money than it was, something 20th Century Fox would probably be regretting were they not being bought out by Disney right now. Should this one day be regarded as being before its time or an unappreciated classic, there are a multitude of shots I can conjure up as being used as evidence of this in the future. It is a gorgeous film, one that takes full advantage of its cinematography and production design. Hell, were the writing ever to really falter into mediocrity full of half-baked intentions, the look of the thing would practically make up for it. Pacing issues aside, there is one tracking shot involving Jon Hamm’s character as he spies on each of the guests that is so entrancing that you’ll wish the whole film would have followed suit. Unfortunately, the climax bungles what sense of intrigue and mystery it had established to the point that sheer randomness wins the day, but as a technical achievement Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t disappoint. In fact, I’d call it a stylistic improvement over Cabin in the Woods, even if it could have used that film’s story structure and vivacity.
And though the story is a bit unwieldy, the character design is precisely what you would hope for from an ensemble picture of this magnitude. Every single player is fleshed out and dynamic in their own right, complemented perfectly by an actor that fits the part but also stands out without upstaging anyone. The big takeaway a lot of people are reporting on is Cynthia Eviro’s powerhouse turn as the heart of the narrative, and while she is relatively solid, I can’t help but gravitate back to Jeff Bridges as the standout, who is such a seasoned and nuanced actor (obviously) that he’s essentially playing in a whole other league than his costars. While he won’t get the kind of recognition that he did for 2016’s Hell or High Water, he is just as convincing as he similarly disappears into a role that seems made for him. Also giving quite the impressive performance is Lewis Pullman, son of everyone’s favorite movie president actor Bill Pullman, who actually unfortunately looks a little too much like Tom Holland. Nevertheless, he proves quite the surprise as he delivers the emotionality needed to close out the narrative. And for those interested in seeing Chris Hemsworth play a villain, you’ll be delightfully entertained, even though he doesn’t get to do a whole lot range-wise and was perhaps more memorable as one in Ghostbusters, for better or worse.
So, in summation, Bad Times at the El Royale assembles a lot of really great pieces and should by all accounts be a classic but puts its foot in its mouth one too many times in its second act to really bring it home. It’s far from bad, and is certainly one that requires revisiting to properly appreciate, so maybe my opinion will change for the better should I give it a second chance. For now, it made one hell of a first impression before kind of going with a whimper. Would it have been better had Quentin Tarantino actually directed it? Probably. But that doesn’t mean that Drew Goddard isn’t a talent in his own right. And perhaps he’ll reach those same heights and is just going through some growing pains. Still, Bad Times at the El Royale is worth checking out if only for a change of pace.
Final Score: 6/10