Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) Review
A LOVER LETTER TO THE
FILM NOIR OF YESTERYEAR
While usually film directors are famed and well-known in the world of filmmaking, screenwriter Drew Goddard is starting to blossom into his own, living his personal “mark” on the industry on both the big and small screen of Hollywood endeavors. Beginning his career as a television writer for acclaimed TV shows like the supernatural drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the espionage action thriller Alias, and the complexed drama adventure Lost. With his talents being noted for his efforts on those projects, Goddard eventually graduated to the big screen, penning the story for the 2008 giant monster feature Cloverfield, 2013’s zombie action thriller World War Z, and even doing the screenplay for 2015’s science fiction film The Martian, which was based off the book of the same name by author Andy Weir. In 2012, Goddard got his chance to be in the director’s chair, making his directorial debut with the horror comedy feature The Cabin in the Woods, which did receive a praise from critics and moviegoers alike. Additionally, Goddard would eventually also help create the Netflix original TV show Daredevil, which is based off of the Marvel superhero character. Now, 20th Century Fox (as well as TSG Entertainment) present the latest directorial endeavor from Drew Goddard with the drama noire feature Bad Times at the El Royale. Is the film worth checking out or should you immediately “check out” of this motion picture?
Once a prominent gambling and party “place to be” for famed celebrities in the 1950s and early 60s, the El Royale Hotel, which is bisected by the border between Nevada and California, has fallen on hard times. Stopping by for night stay at the hotel are Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweets (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum salesman Seymour “Laramie” Sullivan (John Hamm), and the enigmatic hipster Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson); each one arriving at the El Royale as complete strangers to each other. Expecting a calm and “low key” night, these various guest settle into the hotel as they tend to their own personal business inside their individual rooms. Within time, the guests are soon bonded together a series of events, with the hotel’s front desk clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) exposing one of the El Royale’s most voyeuristic purposes of the establishment. Soon true identities are revealed, violence ensues, and an unexpected visit from a man named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes to the hotel property, bringing more trouble to an already “heated” night of shocking revelations.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Before becoming a movie enthusiast / buff (of which I am today), I do remember watching a lot of TV shows during my middle school / high school years, especially the ones that Goddard (coincidentally) hand a in writing. I remember watching a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but wasn’t really into vampire and monsters, so I sporadically watched it here and there. I did, however, like both Alias and Lost and watched both of the TV shows religiously, enthralled by its characters and the narrative being told. Of the screenplay / writing for theatrical films, perhaps my favorite Goddard one is his work on The Martian. Yes, I know that was based on Weir’s sci-fi book, but Goddard’s screenplay seemed quite good in how he translated it from “book to film” (I did read the book before seeing the movie). I still haven’t seeing Netflix’s Daredevil, so I really can’t comment on that (I think I really should start watching that show), while his directorial debut with The Cabin in the Woods I found to be pretty good, even though I’m not a particular fan of horror movies (as many of you know). All in all, Drew Goddard seems to be quite a rising star as TV / film writer and let’s hope that his career goes forward and upward with more future projects in the pipeline.
This brings me to talking about Bad Times at the El Royale, the sophomore directorial film from Goddard. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly super enthralled to see this movie. I don’t recall hearing much “buzz” around the internet about this movie and the film’s trailer was pretty “meh” to me. However, I did like the film’s cast and was intrigued by the notion of recognizable “assemble” cast of actors and actresses. That being said, I didn’t see the movie right away (as I fell behind on movie reviews and had to catch up on other ones), but I did hear about this particular movie, with some liking it, while other didn’t. Thus, after I caught up on my reviews, I decided to give this movie a chance and see it in theaters (before it got pushed out). So…. what did I think of it? Well, while there are some critics / moviegoers that didn’t like it, I wasn’t one of them as Bad Times at the El Royale is definitely Goddard’s love letter to the old school film noir movies. There are few problems I had with the film, but for the movie being Goddard’s second directorial endeavor…. it’s definitely worth checking out, especially those cinephiles out there.
With Goddard in the director’s chair for Bad Times (I’m shorting it to that since Bad Times at the El Royale seems like mouthful to write every single time I mention the movie’s name), his sophomore feature film makes for a more “grandeur” tale than The Cabin in the Woods was. Well, I wouldn’t say “grandeur” sort of speak, but rather a more “ambitious” project to tackle. It definitely is as Goddard presents Bad Times as a classic “film noir” motion picture, creating a somewhat different slice of today’s cinematic endeavors. What do I mean? Well, the film is more character driven rather than plot driven as the film takes its time to “reveal” the movie’s primary characters (background and motivations) and for their purpose to coming to the El Royale. There is a definitely a plot, but its more on the backburner as Goddard spends more time on character development than “investing” time in fueling substance into narrative. Although, the various character builds are intertwined to the plot, so I guess it all works out together in the end. Suffice to say, Goddard makes Bad Times more intriguing by its characters (and the actor / actresses who plays them) rather than a gritty or “razzle-dazzle” narrative story.
Also, Goddard setup the film in a way that’s reminiscent to the film noir of old by splitting up the feature into several “chapters” that are half character specific and half main narrative. This is really unconventional for today’s movies as I’ve only seeing a handful of directors utilizing the style of filmmaking, including Quentin Tarantino (see Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, Inglorious Basterds, and The Hateful Eight) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Thus, from the get-go, Goddard structurally presents Bad Times in a very unique way (again, something a bit different) that I really liked and kept me engaged. Heck, I love a good mystery movie as I personally was curious to see how the movie ultimately ended and what secrets would be “unearthed” throughout the course of the film. As a side-note, its best to go into the movie and not know much about it (only the premise) as I’m trying to be vague on some specific storyline details in order to try not to spoil it for you guys.
While directing the feature, Goddard also pulls a “double duty” on Bad Times as he also writes the film’s script. Given his extensive background as screenwriter, it seems like a perfect choice as he can follow the “movie making process” from the drawing-board (sort of speak) to the time he rolls camera on the film’s set. To his credit, Goddard succeeds on the regard, creating an intrigue (almost classic) mystery noir feature with Bad Times, utilizing the film’s time period / setting (circa the 1960s) to create background developments of spy / espionage as well as cult / political intrigue. While those may be familiar tropes in storytelling, Goddard makes work with fits in Bad Times. Although, there could’ve been more development in some areas of that nuances (more on that below).
Additionally, I noticed that the film’s dialogue (throughout all its variety of characters) is also quite sharp and well-written, which probably due to Goddard’s penning multiple scripts / screenplays over his career, and it definitely shows throughout Bad Times, especially when I’ve seeing plenty of recent movies that have good actors / actresses that have poorly written dialogue lines.
In terms of technical filmmaking, Bad Times is a very (and cinematically) stylish feature film, with Goddard making the movie in a way that’s very 60s chic in both look and feel throughout. Of course, various set-pieces in the movie are the true standout of these categories, with most revolving around the lavish sets around El Royale hotel. I personally love how the main lodge looks and their difference between staying in California side versus the Nevada side. Thus, I have to mention art direction team of Michael Diner and Lisa Van Velden as well as the production designs by Martin Whist and set decorations by Hamish Purdy for their efforts in bringing the hotel to life. Next, along with Goddard, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey makes for some creative and cinematic shots throughout the movie, which do add a very appealing layer to the film, while the movie’s musical score (composed by Michael Giacchino) definitely builds upon some of Bad Times intention and mystery throughout. Plus, Bad Times also boasts an impressive (and lyrical) soundtrack from 1960s, including songs from Four Tops, The Four Preps, Frankie Valli, Alana Da Fonseca, and The Mamma & The Papas.
There are a few problems that I had with Bad Times, which prevents the film from being truly great in the world of cinematic endeavors. The most noticeable one is the simple fact that the movie’s noir style (both story and filmmaking nuances) might not winning everyone over. It’s definitely a unique experience in presenting (and viewing) a theatrical story in a way that Goddard wanting the film to be. However, it will be a division amongst its viewers, ranging from causal moviegoers to amateur / professional film critics, with latter probably relishing a cinematic tale like this, while the former won’t get it. Personally, I’m more of the latter, but I did have a few gripes that the films.
The one that many (on both sides) will agree on is that the film is long in the tooth (sort of speak) and does come with some pacing issues throughout. With the movie having a runtime of 141 minutes, which translate into two hours and twenty-one minutes, its quite easy to say that Bad Times is considered a “slow-burner”, peeling back its narrative story in slow intervals that tries to “draw” its viewers into its plot’s premise. However, some particular moments (that I personally felt) were held too long and could’ve been easy trimmed. I know those scenes were to extended by Goddard more “dramatic” effect, but some were just too long for their own good and just unnecessarily makes the film’s runtime bloated. Again, the movie could’ve been reduced to roughly being two hours long and managed to create an effective and tightened final cut of the feature. This also causes the movie too have several pacing issues throughout the movie; finding the narrative to be slowly unraveling its story from one character to the next character. Like I said, the film is a slow-burner, but were there a few times that I wanted the movie “fast forward” and to actually “get to the point” of that particular scene. Thus, the flow is there, but the tension and pacing of the story being told could’ve been reworked and presented better.
Another problem I had with the movie was some of the background narrative elements that are presented in the feature. While majority of the backstory that was featured in the various main characters was reasonable well-managed (minus a few brief sequences), there were a few narrative bits and pieces that don’t fully materialize well-enough and come across as half-baked ideas. I’m not saying that there are particularly horrible / bad ideas, with the movie taking cues from the 1960s (mostly spy / espionage elements) and peppering the film with those nuances. However, most of them don’t really go anywhere and feel slightly clunky in how they are “worked” into Bad Time’s narrative. Again, it’s necessarily bad, but the movie just doesn’t explain certain things, despite being vaguely prevalent during the story. An example of this is the actually El Royale motel or rather “management” of it. Its mentioned, but doesn’t really go anywhere. Still, it doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of the Bad Times, but it’s something that I kind of felt a bit pointless overall (i.e. more contrive backstory elements).
With the movie being stylish and taking a somewhat different stance than most current films, Bad Time’s cast truly does shine, captivating the movie’s viewers even when the narrative start to slow down. Of course, the veteran of the casts are actors Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm are probably the most recognizable ones of the cast, finding both great in their respective roles as hotel guests Father Daniel Flynn and Seymour “Laramie” Sullivan. Bridges, known for his roles in True Grit, Crazy Heart, and The Big Lebowski, brings a certain “seasoned” gravitas to the film’s proceedings with the actor having a lengthier career than most of his cast. To his credit, Bridges certain does bring “his A-game” to the movie, with a memorable performance as Daniel Flynn, which a mixture of his usual swagger charm of acting talents from various other projects. To me, it was definitely one of his better performance I’ve seeing of him in quite sometime…. loved him in the movie. Likewise, Hamm, known for his roles in Mad Men, The Town, and Tag, gives a memorable performance as Laramie, with the actor using his classic suave bravado and slick tongue in making the character let on more than he knows. He definitely fits right at home in Bad Times (heck, I think he looks the part of a man from the 1960s era) and does lend his theatrical charm for whenever his on-screen. Again, I’m not going too much into the character builds as that would ruin some of Goddard’s intended “magic” for the film, but both Bridges and Hamm were excellent in the movie.
Behind those two would be actresses Dakota Johnson and Cynthia Erivo, who play the other two hotel guests Emily Summerspring and Darlene Sweets. Johnson, known for her roles in Fifty Shades of Grey, How to be Single, and Black Mass, does give a solid performance as Emily, effectively adding a lot layered mystery to her character and produces a sort of hardened “femme fatale” character. Her character becomes more of the central plot as the film progresses forward and it does to see Johnson displaying the right amount acting prowess for what the movie requires for Emily. Plus, I do have to say that I was ten times more impressed with Johnson’s acting talents as Emily in this movie than what she did with character Anastasia Steele in the Fifty Shades trilogy. While Johnson is the more prominent name of the two actresses (in Hollywood at least), Erivo, known for her roles in Mr. Selfridge, Widows, and Chaos Walking, is probably the standout role of the entire cast and provide the biggest and most memorable character of the feature. Being a winner of a Tony Award for her role The Color Purple musical, Erivo is a veteran of the “stage” and certainly shows that in Bad Times with her vocal singing talents, which do elevate her character of Darlene. Personally, she was probably my favorite character in the film….and I think many will agree with that.
The last member of Bad Times’s primary cast is actually a more relatively known, with actor Lewis Pullman playing the part of Miles Miller, the sole concierge / employee at the El Royale hotel. Known for his roles in Aftermath, Battle of the Sexes, and The Strangers: Prey at Night, Pullman projects the right amount of “twitchy-ness” to Miles and actually gives the character more depth as the film heads into the third act. Thus, Pullman’s Miles provides some of the film’s backstory context as well as providing his own character background as the film’s events take more of a “darker” turn.
With the movie focusing on these primary characters, Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t have a lot of supporting players in its rosters and, while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, that just means that there’s more character build for the main players of the feature. The supporting characters that the film does have revolves around the character of Johnson’s Emily, with actress Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising and On the Basis of Sex) as Rose and actor Chris Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War and 12 Strong) as Billy Lee. Of course, while Spaeny’s acting are fine in the role of Rose, Hemsworth shines the brighter of the two. While I won’t spoil his character of Billy Lee for you guys (again…the less you know the better), its definitely an interesting role for him (something he’s not mostly known for). That being said, Hemsworth’s natural charm screen presence does fit the character and does turn a memorable performance as Billy Lee.
Secrets are revealed, twists are unearthed, and turns take an unexpected direction as several strangers spend the night at a once-popular motel in the movie Bad Times at the El Royale. Director Drew Goddard sophomore directed film sees a return the bygone days of the film noir genre, presenting cinematically stylish motion pictures that’s full of revelations and character moments. While the film is need long in the tooth (and slow paced) with several pacing issues and some other background nuances, the movie succeeds in its character drama, with Goddard effectively directing a classic feature of mystery and suspense, especially with the solid cast that he has enlisted for the film’s various characters. Personally, I liked the movie. It was definitely something a bit different from what I’ve seeing of the 2018 movie releases and is a bit of slow-burner, but its quite a stylish-made feature that has old school touch of classic noir nuances. Plus, I loved the cast in the movie. However, some might not agree with me. Thus, I would say that this movie is both a “recommended” title for movie enthusiasts (and few casual ones as well), while also say that it is a “rent it” for everyone else as it’s a movie that should be (at the very least) once by everyone. In the end, while Hollywood will continue to release the commonplace genres of superhero blockbusters, the obligatory horror feature, the comical animation films, and its plethora of “page to screen” movie adaptations, Bad Times at the El Royale stands as sincere “love letter” to the film noirs of yesteryear, proving that today’s Hollywood industry still has a few more “creative juices” up its sleeve.
4.2 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)
Released On: October 12th, 2018
Reviewed On: October 30th, 2018
Bad Times at the El Royale 141 minutes long and is rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content, and brief nudity.