Bad Times at the El Royale
Edwin Arnaudin: For such a well-made film, Bad Times at the El Royale deserves a better script — and justification for its existence.
Written and directed by Drew Goddard, the sprawling, practically pointless thriller lacks the intelligence, wit, and energy of his previous genre fantasia, The Cabin in the Woods, but is about as good-looking a movie as is likely to be released in 2018.
Set sometime in the Nixon era at the titular, formerly majestic Lake Tahoe hotel smack-dab on the California/Nevada border, the film pulls a priest (Jeff Bridges), a traveling vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), an R&B singer (Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo), and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) to its grounds as if through magnetic force.
While there’s credible enough tension through learning each guest’s true agenda and, in several cases, identity, and brief jolts arise when chapters come to explosive ends and new timeline-jumbling ones begin, Goddard otherwise lets the story unfold in laborious, overlong fashion with sadly rare humor, even of the dark variety.
As the film’s one true innocent, too much is asked of Erivo, who’s unable to elevate her character above standard damsel status despite being given actions that suggest otherwise.
Though her arc isn’t the least interesting of the bunch, the one that earns that honor is the one on which Goddard chooses to focus, while the most appealing strand is confoundedly the first one to end. The decision doesn’t appear to be a case of intentional, Funny Games-level viewer manipulation, but rather one of filmmaker cluelessness, and the late addition of Chris Hemsworth as a chiseled, vengeful cult leader isn’t nearly as interesting as it sounds.
Dragging on with decreasing interest, Bad Times at the El Royale keeps tacking on supplemental information, and stifles whatever momentum remains by looping in a brief history of the hotel’s lazy clerk (Lewis Pullman, Battle of the Sexes) at a wildly inopportune moment.
Once the body count is totaled and the survivors lick their wounds, all that’s left is the kind of Pulp Fiction knockoff that tends to tarnish one’s faith in movies, and one that continues the tradition of films with “Bad” in their titles proving to be accurate advertising. Grade: C-minus.
Bruce responds: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I rest my case. Seriously, though, I think there’s so much going on in Bad Times at the El Royale, it may be (to coin a phrase) about as intriguing a movie as is likely to be released in 2018. Goddard’s visuals are beautifully calculated, a blend of geometry and colorful design that pleases the eye and frames the many story threads with precision and resonance.
I agree that Goddard takes direct inspiration from Quentin Tarantino in style, the folding of the time lines and the high level of violence, but he has different thematic interests. The directors share a fascination with life’s fragility and the whims of fate, but while Tarantino is about power and seduction, Goddard is more interested in guilt and loyalty, with a strong current of religion — or at least faith, since God is no certainty here.
There’s a reason Bridges is introduced as Father Daniel Flynn, singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) has gospel roots, clerk Miles (Pullman) is obsessed with confessing his sins and Billy Lee (Hemsworth) gives a long speech about becoming God: Bad Times is about peeling away each characters surface motivations to ask where their higher loyalties lie. The sudden deaths of several characters make more sense if you recognize the verdict that their choice of devotion was seriously misguided.
But this is a bit of cart-before-horse analysis, as I found the chief appeal of Bad Times to be the storytelling, both on the level of superior filmmaking (design, costumes, camerawork, dialogue) and on the level of more than two hours of twists and turns that keep unfolding new revelations and enriching (or tearing down) the characters. I wasn’t mesmerized for every minute — in another nod to Tarantino, the final all-hands-on-deck stand-off is far too protracted. But for the most part I was consistently engaged and carried happily along.
Goddard also elicits some terrific performances. For a start, Bridges is as solid as usual, Dakota Johnson nicely sheds 50 shades of bad karma and Hemsworth and Hamm are as, well, hammy as you might want. But the real revelations for me were Erivo and Pullman. I found Erivo heartbreaking as Darlene, portraying and eliciting powerful emotions with both her acting and her singing. And Pullman, who starts off as a kind of amusing sideshow, winds up perhaps the most human presence in the film, next to Erivo.
Indeed, Erivo is so good in Bad Times that I’m really jazzed now to see next month’s women’s caper flick Widows, even if I have to put up with another overwrought Gillian Flynn plot machine. Meanwhile, I’d readily check into El Royale for a second visit. Grade: A-minus.
Overall grade: B-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: 20th Century Fox)