Bad Times at the El Royale has a lot of the hallmarks of a Tarantino-esque retro noir film, but it’s got a bit more on its mind than mere genre riffing. Drew Goddard makes a partial return to his Cabin in the Woods conceit and uses characters as allegories.Allegories, however, are seldom interesting in and of themselves, so is there more to this film than stretching metaphor to the breaking point? Yes, and no.
We start with a cold open of an unnamed man burying a suitcase in a motel room, and then rapidly shift ten years forward to the late 1960s with our characters arriving at the titular hotel. Halfway across the state line between Nevada and California, it’s a run-down slice of ’50s streamline Americana, with its long-gone glory days reflected in a series of photographs of visiting cultural icons on a wall. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives and jockeys with Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) to book a room from distracted attendant Miles (Lewis Pullman). Everyone, of course, has secrets but it’d ruin the film to reveal them and the chaos and violence that unfolds as a result are very watchable and tense.
You can watch this film with no awareness of its subtext and still enjoy it. In fact, I’d say doing that’s probably for the best. As soon as you realise the El Royale represents the USA, you might want to start playing connect the symbolic dots, and that’s much less interesting and entertaining than the characters themselves. The performances here are very good, with a truly surprising late-movie appearance by Chris Hemsworth. Sadly it is hampered by pacing and overly episodic reveals of characters’ backstories that suck a lot out of proceedings, resulting in a movie that feels a lot longer than it is.
Is it worth watching? Like the El Royale, it’s awkwardly straddling two states: sociopolitical puppet show and edgy crime thriller. Its rather laboured symbolism and the contrived formal lengths it goes to to make sure you don’t miss it are more of a distraction than an advantage. You’ll probably enjoy the basic story and characters (and the lush cinematography and score) enough that the metanarrative doesn’t matter too much, but the length and structural issues will distance you from the material.
Special commendation must go to Cynthia Erivo, whose acting and singing are a revelation. Give this lady more roles, Hollywood.