With its classic soul soundtrack and neon-drenched, retro stylings, Bad Times at the El Royale follows the course of one fateful night sometime in the late 1960s, when seven strangers with seven secrets all show up at a state-straddling casino lodge that’s seen far better days. Fandorians Joaquin Lowe and Hannah Piper Burns “checked in” to the movie theater over the weekend to see if this promising premise could justify its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Here’s what they had to say:
Caution; spoilers ahead!
Hannah Piper Burns: Bad Times at the El Royale is a timeline-hopping ensemble piece in the tradition of Pulp Fiction, starring Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Lewis Pullman, Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny, and Chris Hemsworth (whew). It’s written and directed by Drew Goddard, who is known for sharp storylines that tear open the seams of their genres, like 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods. Was it as bad as you thought it was going to be?
Joaquin Lowe: Ha! Right to the heart of the matter. No, it was not as bad as I thought the trailers made it look. But I would say that it was still a mixed bag, which I’m sure we’ll unpack as we go along. But on the flip side, I know this was one of the few movies that interested you this month — what did you think of it?
HPB: I was kind of surprised at how much it reminded me of The Cabin in the Woods! There were so many of the same ideas of surveillance and shadowy overlords. The movie initially interested me because I thought that the cast was amazing… with an exception or two. And in that regard, it certainly didn’t disappoint. We got to see some old pros chew the scenery (and adopt fun accents), and we also got to see some impressive performances from relative newcomers. Anything that’s wrong with this movie is not the cast’s fault.
JL: It really is reminiscent of The Cabin in the Woods. Goddard seems to have a fascination with voyeurism, and he handles that theme in interesting ways. I agree with you on the performances — they were mostly excellent across the board, and each actor gets their fair share of screen time. This is tough to pull off in a big ensemble piece, which leads to my biggest complaint about the movie: its length. It’s long… interminably long… in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m still watching it. After a brisk first and second act, the movie meanders wildly to its climax.
But back to the performances: Hamm carries much of the first act, and he’s clearly having fun with his role. But Goddard kills him off pretty fast, which is a shame. Bridges is solid, even if he’s low-key doing the same thing that he did in Hell or High Water. Dakota Johnson is fine. Lewis Pullman is good, even if he’s a dead ringer for Tobey Maguire. Hemsworth is clearly having fun as well, and he brings the sexy — though his character development represents Goddard at his laziest. But Cynthia Erivo really carries the movie as singer Darlene Sweet.
You say that the cast was amazing, with an exception or two. I’m dying to know what those exceptions are, and your feelings in general about the performances.
HPB: Well, we’re agreed on Erivo. I’m really, really looking forward to seeing her in Widows next month. But I disagree on Pullman! Maguire has such a smarminess that shines through, even at his most vulnerable, and Pullman’s performance was refreshingly absent of that quality, in my humble opinion. Going in, I was probably least “jazzed” on Dakota Johnson, and I wish that Goddard had given her more of a chance to change my mind.
The moments in the movie that I liked the most were the ones with characters on both sides of the one-way mirrors. The scene with Erivo singing, Bridges working the floorboards behind her, and Dakota Johnson watching with her gun cocked gave me goosebumps. I really wish there had been more of that carried through, maybe even into the third act. Oh, that third act. That’s where it all fell apart for me.
JL: The two-way mirrors created interesting interactions between the characters and the audience. Since the audience becomes aware of the two-way mirrors early on, we are let in on the act of voyeurism, which is both fascinating and discomforting. At the same time, I would argue that Goddard doesn’t take this device far enough. The characters in El Royale are all hyper-aware of their surroundings. They all determine pretty quickly that Hamm’s character is a cop. It’s never a mystery who disabled their cars. With the exception of Pullman’s character (and I agree that he was solid in this performance), no one buys that Bridges is a real priest. Not only do they all discover the two-way mirrors fairly early on, but they all pretty easily accept what is going on around them. Because all the characters know as much as the audience, the film short circuits the delicious potential for dramatic irony that the two-way mirrors and surveillance equipment lend to the setting. We’re left with a movie that doesn’t know exactly what it is, besides a riff on the “longest night” trope. I think that’s why the third act meanders as it does. A recent comparison would be A Quiet Place, which I think handled this concept a bit better.
HPB: Another recent comparison would be Hotel Artemis, which arguably did an even worse job! I agree that Goddard’s unspooling of things was confusing at best. The pacing of the whole film was wonky — from the first scene between Bridges, Erivo, Hamm, and eventually Pullman — and the vignettes-and-title-cards technique only worked well about half of the time. But the thing that galls me the most is how Goddard set me up for an epic allegory, and then delivered something much more arbitrary.
Let me explain: When I realized that a “G-Man,” a soul singer, a murderous hippie cult leader, and a traumatized Vietnam veteran had all walked into the same hotel, I thought for sure that Bad Times at the El Royale was going to be some kind of statement on the end of the 1960s, but Goddard seemed less interested in making meaning, and more about using the characters as game pieces. Am I happy about how it all shakes out in the end? I guess, but I wish it had seemed more thoughtful and deliberate. In general, I think that’s what I wish for Goddard. As an auteur and a writer, he seems so eager to be clever that he misses real opportunities to be impactful.
JL: I think that you hit the nail on the head there. The premise and timeframe for the movie feel like the set-up for interesting commentary about the end of an era. But ultimately, El Royale becomes a tiresome shoot-em-up, with very little news to bring to the cinematic landscape. I’d rather watch Clue and call it a night.
HPB: Yes! Or Identity. Remember that 2003 film starring John Cusack and Ray Liotta? Honestly, Bad Times at the El Royale had all the makings of a mouthwatering mix of the two. Alas, what could have been a stylish and sharp social commentary ended up as an extremely well-acted “murder mystery dinner party” gone wrong.