‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is a Really Good Time

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Published October 15, 2018
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From left to right: Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play three guests at the El Royale hotel who each have their own motives for checking in. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is director Drew Goddard’s love letter to legendary director Quentin Tarantino. Its typical crime-thriller plot is elevated to great heights by its style, constant twists and especially its star-studded cast. While some characters or plot points can get lost in the shuffle, it is still a very entertaining deck to sift through.

Set almost entirely in the El Royale, a once luxurious hotel on the California-Nevada border, the film sees a group of strangers check in on one fateful night. Though each guest is there for their own reasons, they all soon become tangled in a web of lies, murder and stolen cash. Things come to a head when a final stranger arrives with an agenda of his own, putting every other occupant of the hotel in mortal danger.

This is not writer and director Drew Goddard’s first rodeo. He has been writing in Hollywood for years, but this is only his second time in the director’s chair. Despite this, “Bad Times” is expertly shot with a lot of creative choices being made throughout. The transitions between scenes are done very stylishly with the camera often focusing in on an object or person of interest.

I often felt like I was there in the hotel with the characters, which is really hard to do and makes the action unbelievably tense.

The cast of “Bad Times” is unmatched, and in some cases was even pleasantly surprising. Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm, two of my favorite actors, do not disappoint with their often fun and sometimes emotional performances. Chris Hemsworth’s role in the film was a big talking point, and his performance is both hilarious and terrifying. Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman, two names that were completely unfamiliar to me, were both fantastic and often stole the show.

Like any good Tarantino-inspired thriller, this movie is full of violent twists and bloody turns. For this reason it is hard to talk about the story without spoiling anything, but from the beginning of the movie none of the characters are who they say they are. It is hard to get a firm grasp on “Bad Times” because as soon as audiences think they know what is going to happen next, it swerves down a completely different road. Only at the very end of the movie can viewers tell with certainty which characters are trustworthy.

This movie, like so many others following in the footsteps of “Pulp Fiction,” often tells its story out of order. Major plot reveals or dramatic moments are followed immediately by a flashback, which give some background into characters or their motivations. Many scenes are replayed multiple times, except from different characters’ points of view, which were some of my favorite moments in the movie.

Because the story takes so many unexpected turns, it is sometimes hard to keep track of what is being seen and why it is being shown. While almost everything comes full circle by the film’s climax, there are some plot threads that get left hanging. I felt that, for a movie with such incredibly talented performers, a few characters were wasted.

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Chris Hemsworth plays Billie Lee, a stranger whose arrival ups the stakes dramatically. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The setting of the movie, the eponymous El Royale hotel, is a very interesting location conceptually and visually. However, “Bad Times” is character-driven, and the setting wound up feeling pointless by the movie’s end. It could have been set in any ordinary motel or really any location at all. As long as those characters were still present, not much would have changed.

Overall, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is tense, interesting and sometimes even emotional. It is filmed with a style that makes even mundane scenes fun to watch and engrosses audiences in the halls of the El Royale. Every member of the stacked cast brings their A-game, with old-timers like Hamm and Bridges doing what they do best, while relatively newcomers like Erivo and Pullman prove that they can easily match them. Hemsworth gets to showoff an unexpected range that I hope to see more of in future films.

While not every single piece of the puzzle fits perfectly by the movie’s end, “Bad Times at the El Royale” was still a ton of fun to piece together.

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