The trailer for the new thriller Bad Times at the El Royale impressed me by how it revealed so little about the movie. The marketing was quite close to the vest, giving us little detail as to where this newest effort from Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard was going to take us. Well, it turns out, he wasn’t taking us very far. The reason the trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale was so coy was because there wasn’t much of a story to share to begin with.
Bad Times at the El Royale features a terrific cast headed up by Jeff Bridges as Doc, a bank robber posing as a Priest. Doc has arrived at the El Royale in search of a room that his late partner had stayed in a decade earlier and stashed the loot from a bank robbery. In the room next door to Doc is Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), the one truly innocent person staying at the El Royale. Darlene is on her way to a singing gig in Reno.
Two doors down from Darlene are Emily and Ruth Summerspring (Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny), though the rest of the guests aren’t aware of Ruth’s presence. Ruth arrived in the trunk of Emily’s car and is now tied to a chair in Emily’s room. How do we know this? Because our final guest at the El Royale is Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and he’s discovered the the Hotel’s secret, a series of hallways in which the guests can be viewed through two way mirrors.
What makes the El Royale so special? It’s set directly on the border of California and Nevada. You can sleep in California or Nevada but beware, California costs one dollar more per night. This we learn from Miles (Lewis Pullman), the Hotel’s lazy but informative front desk clerk who is required to deliver a spiel about the two states Hotel for each new guest. Lewis is full of all kinds of information, especially secrets regarding the management of the Hotel that he’s not entirely comfortable with.
There is an awful lot going on here in theory but as Bad Times at the El Royale plays out it becomes more theory than practice. Director Drew Goddard has a story that is simply spinning its wheels with seemingly no direction. Characters have motivation but there is no uniting arc to anything. One seemingly important character is killed off in a fashion that stops the plot nearly as dead as he is.
This character appears to have the one arc that could push Bad Times at the El Royale forward but he’s used as device for splattery violence instead. So what do we get? We get a story that apes the style of Quentin Tarentino with its flashback structure ala Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill 1 & 2 and title cards, a repeated favorite of Tarentino. What it lacks however, is the narrative drive of Tarentino. Regardless of how unusual Tarentino’s approach seems, it’s going somewhere and Bad Times at the El Royale appears to be going nowhere.
Much of the narrative of Bad Times at the El Royale turns on the arrival, late in the movie, of Chris Hemsworth as a nasty killer named Billy Lee. Hemsworth’s arrival at the El Royale indicates the start of the 3rd act of the movie but if you think it is going to lead to an interesting revelation or drive the plot somewhere, you’d be wrong. I’m desperately trying to recall incidents in this movie that add up to a story but none of them connect.
It’s as if Drew Goddard assembled pieces of other thrillers and placed them in Bad Times at the El Royale. Each of the characters here seem as if they are in their own mini-movie and when they cross over each other violence breaks out as if the stars were fighting for the screen time. That sounds like it could be what happened here but I honestly, made that up on my own. If something that esoteric was what was happening in Bad Times at the El Royale, the film doesn’t do a very good job of communicating that.
I think Drew Goddard is an incredibly talented director. His Cabin in the Woods is the best meta--horror movie I’ve ever seen, a wildly clever and inventive shredding of horror movie cliches. He subverts genre brilliantly in Cabin the Woods and I kept hoping that perhaps he would subvert the thriller genre and deliver something unique. Bad Times at the El Royale is unique but it is unique in the wrong way, it’s unique in how it never coalesces toward any recognizable narrative momentum.
Is there tension? Sure, you never know when a character is going to be killed. There is no real central character though, that person who carries us forward in the story. I chose to lead with Bridges’ Doc as the focal point of my paragraph starting my plot description, but none of the characters functions as a lead actor or actress. Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene is the closest thing to an audience surrogate but her character is rather remote, distant, and lacks the colorful qualities of the characters around her.
Erivo is a singer by trade and the film allows her to rely on her background to make up much of her character but beyond her beautiful voice, the character lacks depth, she’s fighting for her life at the end of the movie but her passivity fails to indicate the danger that is in play. Erivo does have one impassive moment, one where she sticks it to Hemsworth’s misogynist killer but the moment is fleeting and by then I was exhausted by the film’s flashbacks and disconnected narrative circuits. And that’s not to mention its unnecessary 2 hour and 20 minute run time.