Bad Times at the El Royale.
In this film written and directed by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Marvel’s Daredevil), we follow a small group of strangers who all convene at the El Royale, a hotel that straddles the line between California and Nevada, set in the late 1960s. We’ve got Jeff Bridges as a priest who seems desperate to find something, Cynthia Erivo as a backup singer trying to make her own way, Jon Hamm as an appliance salesman, and Dakota Johnson, whose impatience and lack of courtesy makes the others suspicious. The bellhop of the establishment (Lewis Pullman) is doing a horrible job, though his anxiety leads us to believe there’s something he’s hiding as well. Lastly, we meet an enigmatic cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) who intertwines with some of our characters’ stories.
This is a small cast and they each have substantial moments to shine. Jeff Bridges has been hit or miss for me lately, but this role is a standout for him. There are a lot of layers to his character that he fully embraces. I was also pleasantly surprised by Dakota Johnson, who I’ve really only seen in the Fifty Shades series.
The real stars of the show though? Relative newcomers Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo. Pullman stars as the bellhop who has seen and done some horrible things, drawn to the priest who visits (Bridges), in hope of absolution. Erivo stars a singer who is venturing out on her own and just happens to get caught up in the craziness of it all. She holds her own against heavyweights here, she’s going to be a big star soon. She’s already starring opposite Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez in the upcoming Widows.
In general, I want to applaud the movie’s style. The soundtrack is incredible. The editing and stylistic cuts I found to be super engaging. The colors are vibrant and bold. It’s a fresh looking movie.
The story, which echoes back to films like 10 Little Indians or Murder on the Orient Express, is a standard storytelling device, but its the characters that make this plot stand out. We are told via flashbacks about each of our guests and we slowly learn more and more about why they’re there. It’s a satisfying structure, classic in feeling but fresh in execution.
What doesn’t work?
While most of the cast get to shine here, the letdown for me was Chris Hemsworth, who takes awhile to show up and when he does, he didn’t carry the gravitas that I was expecting. I’m sure some folks will applaud Hemsworth’s performance here, it is drastically different than anything he’s done, but I didn’t find his eccentricity to be that threatening. It was silly at points, getting the audience to laugh in moments that were meant to be terrifying.
Because of this, I felt the third act was a little underwhelming. Hemsworth becomes the major focus, somewhat taking the spotlight from other characters and their arcs that I found much more interesting.
Bad Times at the El Royale is an interesting film and many of you should have a good time but I wouldn’t call it “great.” The performances are mostly brilliant, including the best Jeff Bridges performance in years and surprising new actors Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo. The plot is typical for a “people stranded at a certain location” movie but it works because the characters are so intriguing. The movie has style, a great soundtrack, and plenty of twists and turns, though the final act and an iffy performance by Chris Hemsworth kept this just under the bar for my highest accolades.