There are myriad things to which one could compare Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale: a LEGO set, for all its pieces that are meant to come together in the end, a process that usually requires the assembler to refer to a larger framework to make sense of it; a matryoshka doll, for the story that nestles an ode to pulpy crime fiction, which encases religious allegory, which can be split apart to reveal a microcosm of our secret-and-shame-sequestering society; a glossy red Chevrolet Camaro on an open stretch of road that careens around a mountain, for its stylish and sheeny packaging that bows and bends on repeat before arriving at its final destination.
But really, Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard’s neo-noir thriller that follows his wickedly smart horror satire The Cabin in the Woods, is a cocktail. Goddard takes a bit of Reservoir Dogs, a dash of Grindhouse, a scoop of Pulp Fiction, and a sprinkle of The Hateful Eight; tosses in a twisting timeline and characters hiding various skeletons in their closets; tops it off with a stop-in-your-tracks selection of songs; and shakes it all together in a cool, carefully selected apparatus. He then pours his concoction — slowly, almost seductively — into a rocks glass, only missing the lip by a millimeter, letting some of the liquid make a mess on the counter.
Bad Times is, on the whole, very much a good time, though there’s little denying that what Goddard himself has described as his love letter to ‘60s crime fiction and film noir feels somewhat like an homage to Quentin Tarantino in the ‘90s. An exercise (conscious or otherwise) in genre subversion and expectation experimentation, the film doesn’t quite toy with audiences to the degree it could have, and what is a visually arresting, multi-chapter feature stuffed with sex and crime and all sorts of debauchery could’ve been sharper and gone out with the kind of bang that punctuated the plot three times in the first two acts.
The year is 1969. And the place? Why, it’s the El Royale, the titular locale that’s more a character itself than just the holding hub of the seven strangers we meet within its heavily decorated walls (and hidden chambers, too). Once a hustling and bustling haven for Hollywood’s elite — the bottle blonde who had everyone ditching their brunette locks, Marilyn Monroe; the Rat Pack rollers Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin; mobsters with money to spare; and various politicians with double lives to conceal and fetishes to fulfill — the El Royale is now a barely-surviving boarding house with no gambling license, no staff (save for a single scatter-brained 20-something), and no chance at returning to its former glory. What the tacky spot, which straddles the border between California and Nevada and splits its rooms up by state, does have is two-way mirrors, duffel bags full of stolen cash, caches of drugs, surveillance equipment, and dark anecdotes involving wolves and blood-soaked stockings. But the troubled manager-slash-custodian-slash-bartender Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), whose inner demons are hard to keep tucked away, won’t tell you that when he delivers the signature “welcome to the El Royale” spiel and hands you a state-shaped key.
As if by chance, a small pool of strangers floods the lobby of the El Royale on one otherwise quiet evening, over the course of which our story takes place. There’s fast-talking vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm, who continues to prove himself a powerhouse post-Mad Men) and the down-on-her-luck soul singer Darlene Sweet (a phenomenal Cynthia Erivo), who check in after the forgetful and not unfriendly Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) chooses the fourth room on the Nevada side. Laramie snags the honeymoon suite (his company is footing the bill from the El Royale, so why not splurge on a jet tub and a heart-shaped headboard?) while Darlene is stuck with room five, right next to Father Flynn, whom she’d rather not have hear her rehearsing for her gig in Reno the following night. Before the trio head to their respective rooms and carry out their respective plans — Laramie hides something from everyone else, but he’s on the hunt for what someone else has hidden from even more important people; Darlene pads her walls with egg crate mattress toppers to boost acoustics while she belts out The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine”; and Father Flynn prays his memory hasn’t betrayed him when he begins finishing a job he started ten years ago — blue jean hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) snags a one-night stay for her and her kidnapping victim (a haunting Cailee Spaeny) and signs the ledger with a classy, all-caps “FUCK YOU.”
Goddard, who wrote the script for Bad Times in addition to directing, crafted each of these characters splendidly, granting them their own sordid backstories that unspool in flashbacks cut between scenes at the El Royale. (These help release the pressure from the bottle, keeping Bad Times from feeling claustrophobic inside its single location.) Hamm’s Laramie is all Southern spitfire and “don’t touch my accoutrements!” on the outside, but a family man and a justice-seeker within. More troubled than she lets on, Emily uses a foul mouth and a firearm to mask her fiercely protective nature. Perhaps the only truly virtuous character of the Bad Times bunch, Darlene is mesmerizing in her strength, relatable in her self-doubt, candid from start to finish, and just as interesting, if not more so, than her crime-committing counterparts.
The man who rocks up to the El Royale party late, Chris Hemsworth is convincing as Billy Lee, a cult leader whose interests include: making women, motivated by the prospect of spending an evening in bed with him at “the big house,” attack one another in efforts to demonstrate in real time his personal philosophy that there is no right or wrong in this world and that anyone can deem themselves their very own capital-G god; forcing strangers to place their fate on the black or the red of a roulette wheel; and dancing, near-shirtless with a plate of cherry pie not-so-fresh from a cafeteria-style vending machine balanced on his palm, to Deep Purple’s cover of the Billy Joe Royal track “Hush.”
He’s as interesting on the surface as an antagonist of his kind can be. But as quickly as Erivo’s Darlene sticks a hand through the veil he drapes himself with — a bloated ego and holier-and-crueler-than-thou attitude, narcissism couched in confidence, and pseudo-mysticism matched with Jim Jones-y demands — and sees him for his true self, a sad little man who gets off on controlling others, so too does the audience. The longer one looks at him, Hemsworth’s Billy Lee grows increasingly cliched, evoking Charles Manson and his murderous Family more than anything yet still coming across like an amalgamation of every dude from the flower power era who thought themselves the Chosen One. Still, it’s a ball to see Hemsworth give himself to the character without abandon, as he did with Taika Waititi’s screwy reinvigoration of the God of Thunder in Thor: Ragnarok. The Australian star’s willingness to suspend disbelief and really do the damn thing has always been a treat, and it’s just as delicious in Bad Times.
The real diamonds amid the roughness of the El Royale, though, are Bridges’ Father Flynn and Erivo’s Darlene, with special mention to Pullman as Miles.
What Bridges and Erivo accomplish here is not microacting but complete and total immersion. Bridges, who has a filmography so long it could be wrapped around the exterior of the El Royale — twice, and Erivo, whose completed credits you can count on just one hand, exist on the same plane here. Father Flynn’s words get caught in his mouth, his brain clouded with chaos of the past and insidiousness he can’t understand, and we suddenly feel a lump in our throat. Darlene swallows sadness from the inside of a recording studio while a slimy producer (Xavier Dolan in an out-of-the-blue cameo) talks down to her, and we notice our skin crawl. He gets teary-eyed talking about his brother (Nick Offerman) and recounting the fatal adventure they took.he smacks her hands on the wheel of her car, knowing there’s no chance it’ll run and especially not in the rain, and asks her god for light in the darkness. In moments like those, Bridges and Erivo are their characters, an authenticity made more brilliant by Goddard’s intentional framing, intimate direction, and stretched-out dialogue. Goddard ensures that by the time Father Flynn and Darlene have warmed to one another, forming a tender bond initially undercut with tension, we fall in love with the pair in the same way he did.
As Miles, Pullman is tiny dynamite, bursting in each scene he appears before figuratively setting himself on fire in the final act. A young man who only ever hoped to do good became one who only ever did what he was told, plagued with regret and harboring sins that he can’t seem to repent for no matter how hard he tries. He becomes the scapegoat for the wrongdoings of everyone around him, and Pullman, with a shaky voice and wide eyes, plays the heartwrenchingly earnest Miles with startling sincerity.
Genuinely engaging, surprising, and humorous in its first two acts, Bad Times loses steam in the back third of its 141 minute runtime — right around the time Hemsworth’s Billy Lee walks through the pouring rain and into the El Royale, when the film swaps punch-pulling for storytelling that veers to the wayside. Instead of bearing witness to one big bombshell that brings the entire story together, audiences watch as Bad Times at the El Royale tapers off, leaving loose strings dangling despite capping things off with a sweet epilogue. Where Goddard’s debut ripped its narrative wide open, his sophomore effort is less satisfying, as it leaves viewers with more lingering questions — Was it all a vision of purgatory before a fair few pass through the pearly gates, or something far grimmer? Was a Kennedy on that tape? Who are Miles’ supervisors anyway? And what’s the real purpose of the El Royale? — than concrete answers.
Bad Times at the El Royale, though imperfect, is saved by its magnificent first two-thirds, its A-list cast that stuns and shares the spotlight in rounds, its infectious selection of songs sung to divine perfection by Erivo, and its intriguing premise that is still, post-credits, ripe for further exploration. Sure, the film could have been crisper and creepier with some fine-tuning and a cleaning from one of Laramie’s vacuums, but if you’ve got eight bucks (plus 25 cents for a cup of coffee) and a hankering for a nice slice of pie and a hot toddy or two to go with your inspired crime thriller, the El Royale is a fine place to stay.