Film Corner with Njal Heddle: Bad Times at the El Royale

FilmGood Times at the Flicks.

Six years since he impressed with his horror-rip-apart The Cabin in the Woods, director Drew Goddard returns with his second film with a long title and Chris Hemsworth. Bad Times at the El Royale is a refreshing take on the “strangers in a hotel” noir-farce that is tense, gripping, and filled with compelling stories within its story.

An ensemble piece, Bad Times takes a smattering of peculiar strangers, namely a priest, a singer, a “hippie”, and a vacuum-cleaner salesman (Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, and Jon Hamm, respectively) checking into the hotel and, in a method that brings to mind Goddard’s aforementioned Cabin, subsequently finding out that all is not as it seems, and things start to go south fast.  So far, so regular, but while it may not revolutionise the genre, Bad Times at the El Royale may just be one of the best American film made this year. A tribute to film-noir, home-invasion, and the soon-to-be swinging sixties.

Juggling the characters via episodic vignettes, Goddard manages to balance everything out well enough, maintaining the mystery of why everything is as it is, and the sordid answers that come with it. It’s not unwarranted to compare Bad Times with Tarantino’s proudest film, Pulp Fiction. But where that film was heavy on dialogue, Bad Times goes mainly for the visuals and the action, which is a great strength. This is an intelligent, well-crafted film, with each story coming together and interacting in just the right way. A neon rube-Goldberg contraption of a movie.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Bridges equal parts pleasant and devious, Erivo impressing with her performance as well as her singing, and Hamm ever impressive yet cruelly underused. Johnson doesn’t fail to impress but doesn’t succeed to make a big enough impact, aside from her own story arc, in terms of personality. A standout (and breakout) role comes from Lewis Pullman as Miles, the put-upon hotel attendant with a cavalcade of dark events hanging round him. But the best comes last in the form of Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, the suave cult leader who strides triumphantly into the film’s final act and steals it entirely. Hemsworth’s icy stare and flowing body-language make his Übermensch Manson a formidable, ethereal and charming antagonist to the hotel’s tenants.

However, there are missteps. As with just about every big ensemble film there are always shortcomings regarding the investment in the characters; generally, some get sidetracked for screen-time for the sake of the story moving forward. And the film, while visually impressive, just lacks that little bit of heart for its characters. They may be well-written and the story itself is compelling, but the film is so focused on being just those that it loses that little bit of emotion behind its characters, and thus we don’t entirely feel their plight.

But, man, what style! Bad Times at the El Royale is a stunning and tense exercise in a genre that is always in danger of running out of steam, yet impresses on nearly every front. With his first two directorial efforts a success (and this one made without the meddling of Joss Whedon) Goddard has surely cemented himself as a director of note in the business. It’s already hard not to get excited about where his next film will go, presumably also with a long name and starring Chris Hemsworth. and based off of this, that’s alllllright.


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