It’s never a bad time to check in at the El Royale hotel, divided between the counties of California and Nevada, at the least that’s exactly what writer-director Drew Goddard intends to show you from Bad Times at the El Royale. Being his second feature film as a director after The Cabin in the Woods, Bad Times at the El Royale shows him coming back to create pure pulp fiction from start to finish (and yes, that pun was absolutely intended), and to say the very least, he’s already gotten a promise fulfilled on the spot. With Bad Times at the El Royale, what Drew Goddard has created isn’t a film shy of its own influences – Quentin Tarantino being one of the most present – but he also manages to make what could have turned itself into a stale genre film into something so enthralling for the duration of its running time. That’s only one thing that makes the title more fitting, because we may be watching some bad times happen over at the El Royale motel, yet Goddard promises a good time from start to finish.
The El Royale hotel is a run-down hotel that sits right on the borders of California and Nevada. In the year 1969, a group of strangers come together in this room, staying in separate rooms from on whichever half of the hotel they choose to stay – each of them with a new story to be told. The group consists of the Catholic priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), the salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the runaway Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), and the hotel’s only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). But as every one of the new patrons picks a new room for themselves to stay within for the night, secrets from the past lives of each of them start spilling out, giving everyone a last chance to redeem themselves before they reach an ultimatum. From the title alone, you already have an idea that something’s about to go on over at this desolate hotel, but the best thing that Drew Goddard does with this case is that he allows every story its own time to breathe, though it only begs the question of what exactly happens when everyone comes together at their very worst.
As we start to spend time with every character, bits and pieces of their past come into play as the film is structured around themselves. The first thing that already struck me about the narrative was a resemblance to Pulp Fiction. But Goddard doesn’t keep the influence running down here, because the film talks almost like a Tarantino film – first from the structuring based on each character’s own past leading up to their stay at the El Royale. But in every story we also gain a new sense of perspective as to what else had been going on leading up to an event that we’ve already familiarized ourselves with. There’s another risk that Goddard places himself within through this structure, maybe even to the point he gets wrapped up in feeling too self-indulgent – and that’s where the film already finds itself at its worst. But Goddard only ever manages to keep every story so engrossing, perhaps the most important fundamental that would allow Bad Times at the El Royale to work as well as it does, because it never stretches itself beyond pure pulp.
When talking about what the film can feel like at its worst, it’s present when certain stories also are caught up too much in that style, to some extent it doesn’t always go anywhere. Or one can also say it also ends up going too far in terms of its reach, so much to that point it only sets expectations far too lofty. Sometimes it ends up having one story take over the central interest over what everything else leads up to, it also has oneself forgetting about where everything was supposed to be building up to. Cynthia Erivo and Dakota Johnson presented the most compelling backstories, and turn out great performances too as one would be promised from the bunch – and then there’s Jon Hamm who’s pitifully wasted. Yet how does everyone tie up to the craziest role coming by, out of Chris Hemsworth of all people? It’s a strange role for Hemsworth to take on, yet I’m only ever left baffled about whether or not this payoff was really something that kept everything into focus. If anything, the inclusion of his bits felt more like a half-baked storyline that was mixed into an already intriguing premise and having it all lead up to what would be taken in as the climax – it feels like Drew Goddard starts rambling from here on out.
Bad Times at the El Royale is an interesting turn for Drew Goddard, but because there’s no clear idea as to what’s going on the intrigue can only take you as a viewer just about anywhere. When the film isn’t being overtly self-indulgent you have a compelling story present about a group of strangers who are all about to meet a chance at redemption over at any random spot. But Goddard stretches everything too far for his own good, although it’s never to that point it’s overly distracting. It’s a film that works perfectly as an exercise of pure pulpiness, especially given the premise that it boasts itself upon, but the question to be asked is whether or not it truly flows as perfectly as it wishes. It’s difficult enough to pull everything off so perfectly, especially when you have a multitude of characters all coming together in one story thread, for you’re always going to have a case with one character being more compelling than the rest – but Goddard just keeps going onward even with that challenge getting in the way. If there’s anything I must admit, I do admire his willingness to keep everything going the way he did.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Drew Goddard
Screenplay by Drew Goddard
Produced by Drew Goddard, Jeremy Latcham
Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth
Release Date: October 12, 2018
Running Time: 141 minutes