This article contains minor spoilers for Bad Times at the El Royale.
I can understand balking at the prospect of checking out Drew Goddard’s crime epic Bad Times at the El Royale once you see the 140-minute runtime, and that length honestly should scare you. In the hands of a smart filmmaker, that two hours and 20 minutes could fly by, and it could very well leave you stunned when you walk out into the lobby and discover that, coupled with 20 minutes of trailers, you’ve been at the cinema for almost three hours and it never once felt like that. In Goddard’s hands, however, this is a very, very long sit, one seemingly missing the merciful economy he brought to his prior work as a writer — the first Cloverfield, Ridley Scott’s The Martian — and his only other outing as a writer/director, the fantastic horror film The Cabin in the Woods.
It’s got all the flaws you might expect from a writer’s passion project: A small ensemble that still somehow manages to feel too fucking large thanks to Goddard’s attempts at explaining every nook and cranny of their psyches, lots of tinny talking, scenes that repeat themselves just so that we can get that extra perspective but at the expense of the pacing. It’s an arduous experience, one that definitely promises you pulp fun with its setting and interesting array of characters, but just one that just can’t pony up come third-act time.
It’s 1969, and four strangers find themselves in the lobby of the stylish but empty El Royale hotel in Tahoe, an odd place that sits right upon the Nevada/California state line and, at one point, took advantage of that fact. You can grab a drink on the California side, and you can gamble on the other side, and the rich and famous used to love it before their gambling license got revoked. Now it’s a husk of its former self, and it only attracts the hard-up. The first to arrive is an overtly eager-to-please Southern vacuum salesman named Seymour “Laramie” Sullivan (Jon Hamm), who really, really wants the Honeymoon suite. The second is Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) an African-American soul singer who is striking out on her own after a creepy manager makes her a particularly scuzzy offer. Third is Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who is slowly succumbing to dementia, but remains a kindly and intelligent figure regardless. Fourth and final is Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a brusque and frustrated Southern criminal, who has no time for any of the bullshit niceties required to make it through a hotel check-in.
They’re all watched over (literally) by the heroin-addled and deeply troubled Miles (Lewis Pullman), the only employee of the El Royale after its descent into financial ruin, and, once each person is in the safety of their own room, the masks start to slip off. Father Flynn isn’t actually a priest, he’s a bank robber looking for the money his brother stashed away in the years before he got there. Sullivan is not who he says he is either, and he makes a series of horrifying discoveries as well, including that the hotel is filming its patrons in a secret passageway that is concealed behind a series of two-way mirrors in each room. Emily’s kidnapped her sister, Rose (Cailee Spaney) in an attempt to pry her from the clutches of a Manson-esque cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, sporting a hilarious accent and a great handlebar), though the young woman doesn’t really want to be free. The only person who is who they say they are is Darlene, who, along with Flynn serves as our protagonist here as shit steadily begins to hit the fan. And, boy oh boy, does it take a long while for us to get there.
Anyways, It’s not like Goddard doesn’t have the chops for this, nor is Bad Times all bad — for one, he’s able to manage his ensemble well, and helps his actors do some truly stunning work. The standout amongst the entire cast is Erivo, and the director knows what he’s got on his hands, as the show often stops, with justification, for her to belt out another tune from the great American songbook circa 1969. She is utterly fantastic, and this role, along with her turn in Steve McQueen’s Widows, should prove to provide the requisite hydrogen and helium to ignite her star. He somehow manages to get Bridges to enunciate, which is a feat in and of itself in recent years, and what follows is one of his most coherent modern performances and reminds us what the Dude is capable of when he decides to stop sounding like the human embodiment of a bottle of bourbon. There’s reasonably clever dialogue, including one punchline delivered off-handedly by Hemsworth during a flashback that brought my audience to life after a lengthy silence. Most importantly, He’s got a knack for managing space as well, and along with cinematographer Seamus Garvey (no stranger to period work himself, given his prior collaborations with Joe Wright) and a team of fantastic set designers, the El Royale itself makes for a fascinating location: A retro-modern spot that still looks the part even though its best days are now behind it, forced to contend with a gritty present which already considers it a relic. Garvey’s work here is superlative, and no matter how dire things got on all other fronts, it remained visually compelling.
That wonderful setting work and imagery is then overextended to the film’s themes, where they run aground against the rote and easy observations about the era immediately post-Manson pre-Watergate. Institutions are full of frauds, the government — and to a larger extent, law enforcement — is watching you and doesn’t give a good goddamn about what happens to you, that the hippies are really just the same power-thirsty fuck-hungry people who hold elected office: You know how this goes, and you’ve seen it done better elsewhere. It’s odd, as well, how toothless it all is, given that Goddard’s points are usually best handled with an edge that reveals just how stark the underbelly of that era was in contrast to how we remember it. Nowhere is this worse than in how he handles the character of Hemsworth’s cult leader, who, sparing his latent pedophilia/the prostitution of his followers/violence, actually doesn’t seem that bad. He’s given an ethnically diverse group of devotees, in direct and painful contrast to the homogenous Manson family and their race-baiting rhetoric, and his sermons (which you know are fucked up and weird because two nude people are seen in the background) aren’t much more than what you might get from an overtly eager youth group leader on a Sunday morning. It isn’t particularly interesting regardless, and it’s an extra bummer when the last fifty minutes of the film are devoted to it.
It’s in those minutes that Bad Times lives up to its pre-release reputation as a Tarantino knock-off, not because of any ironic needle drops, graphic (and unexpected) violence or its chronologically disjointed structure, but that Goddard just doesn’t have the skill as a director — or even as a writer — to make 40-plus minutes of a cultist’s interrogation thrilling or compelling. And, even worse, the ideological bow that he attempts to use to piece all of these disjointed moments together is about as unfulfilling as you might expect. It’s Ford’s “Print the Legend” from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but it comes from a place of self-delusion (especially given the fate of a major character and what happens with their last wishes). There comes a moment, late in the film, where a character makes a decision about what to do with a reel of film that they’ve found in the back of the El Royale, which features an at-the-time recently-deceased public figure engaged in an extramarital affair (though never specified, it’s heavily implied to be either Martin Luther King Jr. or Bobby Kennedy, and its vagueness somehow manages to be more tasteless than just outright saying the person’s name and getting sued).
The fate of that reel, and how it plays in an earlier moment where a character tells off Hemsworth, is a key to understanding the thematic failure of the movie at large. Goddard wants this to be an ideological summation of the decade and its status in the media, but Bad Times at the El Royale just isn’t built for the task.
Featured image by Kimberly French via 20th Century Fox.