Movie Review: “Bad Times at the El Royale” – …with Cheese

Written by Jeremiah Greville October 20, 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale

“Oh yeah, that movie…what’s that about again?”

Get ready to hear that a lot in the coming years whenever people mention Bad Times at the El Royale. That movie with all of the stars. The one set at the hotel, right? Despite the slick ad campaign, or perhaps because of it, Bad Times isn’t setting any box office records. It may be destined to become a cult classic. Or it may gain legs when the Youtuber community eventually has their way with it. Either way, it’s not the runaway success the studio was hoping for. And it’s not the slam-dunk neo-noir good time the rest of us were expecting. It’s here for a good time, but not good for a long time. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for. Maybe not.

Bad Times at the El Royale stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, and Chris Hemsworth. Yes, it’s honestly best to list them all like that, because Bad Times is absolutely an ensemble film. At the titular hotel in the 1960s, located on the California/Nevada border, seven strangers find themselves at odds. Secrets are revealed, the plot thickens, chaos ensues. Rinse and repeat. Bad Times is as much a mystery as it is a thriller, so describing the plot in more detail could lead to spoilers. But that’s both the appeal and the problem. Writer/director Drew Goddard spins a great yarn, but the destination isn’t really worth the journey. And frankly, all things considered, I’m not sure the journey was that great either.

“This is not a place for a priest, Father.”

To cut right to the point, the biggest problem is the script. What makes this difficult, however, is that the script is also Bad Times‘ biggest strength. You see, there are two common styles of writer: the Architect, who plans out in advance and builds from a framework, and the Archaeologist, who uncovers new things as they go. Goddard, in writing this script, was entirely an Archaeologist. You can feel it in every scene. He starts with an idea, and doesn’t know where it will end up. That unpredictability makes Bad Times a delight, especially if you’re used to seeing film twists as they come. But once they arrive — then what? Surprise isn’t enough on its own. Style doesn’t just replace substance.

Bad Times at the El Royale

And that’s really what Bad Times is lacking: substance. Once you’ve seen the movie and start to think about it, the whole thing rings hollow. Every scene screams at you that it has deeper meaning, but it doesn’t. You spend the run-time searching for a metaphor and coming up empty. I’m tired of artists doing this — not just filmmakers, but anyone in a creative discipline. Stop putting the responsibility on the audience. Figure out what your work means first, then figure out how to communicate it. Goddard didn’t do that here, and because of it Bad Times at the El Royale suffers. To the audience: please recognize when you’re doing more heavy lifting than the script. Stop giving filmmakers too much credit.

“What is this, some kind of pervert hotel?”

But the tension throughout may still be worth it for many viewers. Bad Times proves early on that it’s not afraid to subvert expectations. And the ride is certainly fun while it lasts. Goddard seems to be doing his best Tarantino impression here, splitting the narrative into distinct chapters. Long takes and carefully constructed overlapping sequences make the first half of the flick a joy to behold. But once the film finally takes shape in the third act it falls apart. It’s fun to have our questions answered, but then there’s nothing left. Bad Times runs on tension and mystery, and when the tank goes dry the film goes nowhere. While the script is to blame, part of the problem is the casting of Chris Hemsworth.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Hemsworth is one of the most under-rated leading men working in Hollywood. Ruggedly handsome, with considerable dramatic and comedic acting chops. Unfortunately, Goddard only seems focused on the first of those three elements. As charismatic cult leader Billy Lee, he’s a sexy torso that talks too much. Despite doing all he can with the role — and genuinely giving it his all — Hemsworth is unable to breathe life into Billy Lee. Yes, he’s got the abs, but was otherwise miscast. Had the role been written to his talents, it could’ve been great. But here he’s a sexy square peg in a crazy round hole. It doesn’t help that his presence drives the final act of the film. The rest of the cast are fine, but none are particularly noteworthy.

“Shit happens. Get the whisky.”

And that’s where this film ultimately lands: fine, but not particularly noteworthy. It’s a gorgeously-constructed well-written yet meaningless thrill-ride. I can’t accuse Bad Times at the El Royale of being mediocre, because it isn’t. It’s still a good film. But the potential was there to be so much more, and that is frustrating. If you’re interested in the flick then give it a chance, but be warned. The beauty is skin-deep, the meaning is surface level. Bad Times at the El Royale may not make for a lasting relationship, but could be a good one-night stand. Have your fun and move on. No regrets, no shame. Just don’t expect anything more, because Bad Times doesn’t have much else to offer.

My Rating: 7/10

Bad Times at the El Royale

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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