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Published on October 19th, 2018 | by Dan Nicholls

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Bad Times at the El Royale

There are good moments in El Royale, like Hamm’s performance.  Unfortunately, the movie’s a “a fancy boat without a single gust of wind in its sails.”

It’s a classic scenario: a group of strangers, each with their own alluring threads dangling, finds themselves bunking up in a remote location bound by some force of fate over the course of one night. Bad Times at the El Royale seems to have success set up for itself from the outset with that premise and a striking row of character actors game to play along. But the film’s title turns out to be a warning – beware, bad times are indeed ahead. Despite some amazing production design and a smattering of true freshness, Bad Times feels less like a Quentin Tarantino homage than a cheap dollar store knock-off.

A mixed bag of characters all find themselves spending a rainy night at the titular El Royale hotel, which resides on the border between Nevada and California. Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), and the talkative Laramie Seymour Sullivan (a fantastic Jon Hamm, stealing every second of screen time) make for strange bedfellows. Even at first glance it’s obvious each person is carrying with them a dark secret, which certainly tantalizes in the setup, but how their threads intercross eventually feels pedestrian. You would hope for a movie of this scope to zig when you expect it to zag. Instead, it just stays dormant.

Bad Times at the El Royale wears its Tarantino influences on its sleeve loudly and proudly. And there’s nothing wrong with inspiration from a master, or even trying to pay homage to the man’s particular style. Swapping points of view, chapter breaks, and loquacious dialogue are all present in abundance. If the inspiration from QT wasn’t obvious enough, one chapter is titled “Room Four” – a pretty clear reference to the film Four Rooms. But where writer/director Drew Goddard stumbles most in his direction is by assuming style and atmosphere would be enough to overcome the lack of engaging substance.

At a longer-than-necessary 141 minutes the film’s true thrills and spurts of individuality are few and far between, making for a long slog to get to the finish line. The twists (of course there are twists) aren’t particularly inspired and, frankly, the whole thing can almost be telegraphed not even halfway through the picture.

The final act is the film’s most egregious case of dropping the proverbial ball. It’s when we finally get to spend some time with the often-teased Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic cult leader in the vein of Manson. There are a million ways all these disparate pieces could’ve collided so that you’d look back and slap yourself in the forehead for not recognizing the grand master plan. Sadly, convention is chosen over revolution. When the ending finally does arrive it’s with a whimper.

It’s probably in some way commendable that Goddard toys with audience expectations by completing disposing of a mind-blowing conceit that would’ve folded the whole hotel in on itself like he did with his previous directorial effort, The Cabin in the Woods. That movie is a modern classic whereas Bad Times feels like a technical accomplishment made to wow craftsmen more than it engages paying audiences. It’s a fancy boat without a single gust of wind in its sails.

There are small pleasures to be found in the El Royale; Jon Hamm’s performance in particular is an absolute hoot – boy, it would’ve been fun to spend more time with him. But those looking for a full meal deal are gonna find themselves picking at scraps, wondering when the check is going to arrive so they can cut their losses and finally go home.

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About the Author

Dan Nicholls

is a Vancouver-based, lifelong movie geek who's been a projectionist, critic, director, (accidental) actor, and writer in the industry since E.T. phoned home. @dannicholls



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