“Bad Times at the El Royale?” More like a good time at the movies!
I’m sorry about that. “Bad Times” is a mysterious, dark romp through a run-down motel in the early 1970s. Featuring an all-star cast including Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson and Chris Hemsworth, “Bad Times” plays well with mystery, but sometimes falls short on delivery.
In the film, the titular El Royale is a derelict motel on the border of Nevada and California, literally. A massive red line runs down the middle of the motel, dividing the Nevada side, filed with gambling machines and a bar, from the California side, containing a rotating array of questionable sandwiches and pies. The motel is 10 years past its prime, when it was a flourishing gambling hole for famed celebrities such as Frank Sinatra. But now, its only caretaker is an anxious bell hop, and its only inhabitants are seven strangers who are about to have a very interesting night.
Each character seems to be hiding something, and their introduction is carried out perfectly. While waiting for the bell hop to wake up and sign them into their rooms, our ensemble cast meet each other for the first time in the motel lobby. We have a vacuum salesman (or is he?), a forgetful priest (or is he?), a quiet hippie (or is she?) and a Motown soul singer (or is she? She is, but maybe she’s hiding something else?). We slowly begin to realize that not everyone is who they seem to be.
As the movie progresses, each character’s true identity is slowly peeled back. Even the motel itself has secrets. A character finds his room filled with hidden microphones, and then stumbles upon a series of tunnels, connecting all the rooms together. This mystery creates a heightened curiosity, as you continue to guess who each character truly is.
Unfortunately, some of these reveals do not fully pay off. Many of the twists are pretty predictable, or do not give enough information to totally satisfy you. For instance, one of the characters is secretly working as an FBI agent, but you never fully see what they are investigating. But there are enough twists and turns that a few missed surprises don’t ruin the entire film. The indiscriminate manner in which characters are killed off also adds an element of surprise. After mostly following one character for the majority of the first act, they are suddenly cut down by a shotgun. These stakes are raised even higher after a cult leader arrives, and gathers up all the El Royale inhabitants for an explosive finale.
As a mostly character driven film, most of the performances are complex and entertaining. Jeff Bridges plays the “priest,” who although dressed as a man of God, has committed his fair share of sins. His duality is compounded by his failing mind, adding an extra layer of difficulty to his performance. Chris Hemsworth plays a charismatic cult leader, who remains shirtless for most of his scenes. Cynthia Erivo is a scene-stealer as a distraught Motown singer looking for a better life. The only really flat performance comes from Dakota Johnson. She barely says anything in the entire movie and is mostly forgettable.
Ultimately “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a fun romp that plays well with the environment it has built for itself. While some risks don’t pay off, the movie was well-paced and keeps you guessing.