I’m not sure if the name holds up: I had a good time at Bad Times at the El Royale (2018). Drew Goddard’s new film has tons of tension, twists, non-linear storytelling, and really strong performances by both veterans and newcomers. The premise of the hotel in which the film is set is compelling in and of itself – it is built on the state lines of California and Nevada, splitting the main lobby right down the middle and ultimately giving guests the choice of which state they’d prefer to stay in – but the intersecting storylines of the various characters make for a thrilling ride for most of the movie’s two-hour-plus runtime.
El Royale offers a lot of enjoyment, but something was definitely missing
The premise of the film is harder to break down without potentially revealing details that may affect one’s enjoyment of the movie. A series of individuals each find themselves checking in at the hotel: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). After waiting a while for Miles (Lewis Pullman), the seemingly only employee at the dying hotel, the four check in to their rooms – then the story really moves. This isn’t where the movie starts, though.
Goddard opens the scene with a fixed camera of one of the hotel rooms at the El Royale, where Felix O’Kelly (Nick Offerman) brings in his bags and sets them on the bed. The camera never changes, and after Felix turns, on the radio, a series of jump cuts helps to move the scene along. Felix proceeds to pull up the carpet, then the floorboards – only to hide one of his suitcases in the floor. Things don’t go well for Felix, and the movie then jumps ten years into the future: the day the previous four arrive to check in. It’s a very stylized scene, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. Nothing is ever exactly what it seems, and everyone has a story.
There are solid performances with Pullman being the clear standout in a number of ways. Erivo gives an earnest performance and gets to show off her vocal talents several times – and in some inventive ways. While Pullman and Erivo were the pleasant surprises, Bridges gives one hell of a performance, and one of my favorites of his in recent memory…and I love Hell or High Water. Chris Hemsworth shows up and gives another solid performance, further moving him up my favorite actor’s list. This guy is really able to deliver a variety of characters, which was not something I expected of him early in his career. Dakota Johnson gives a better performance than I’ve seen from her previously (though I have missed a few of her better-reviewed films).
That’s the thing about this movie that I’m most shocked about…I can’t pinpoint why I don’t feel like I love it. There is no question that I enjoyed it, and it got several reactions out of me. Goddards employs some solid filmmaking techniques and utilizes the match cut like few others I’ve seen in recent years. Still, there is something just nagging at me that isn’t letting me rave about it. I’m not sure if its the odd setting that I can kind of see thematic tie-ins, which makes it feel more like a novelty than a necessity to the story. Whatever it is, it’s stopping me from giving Bad Times at the El Royale the highest rating, as it earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy one instead.