Bad Times at the El Royale takes on the fashion of a classic “who done it”, with its dynamic characters and late 60’s setting. The only thing missing is a strong central mystery. Several strangers cross paths at the “El Royale” motel, each with their own reason for being there. Each also has a secret that will impact the other guests at the hotel. Writer and Director, Drew Goddard, builds his thriller around this premise, spending time with each character and their secret. This was a fun and clever approach, but without a central mystery the narrative ended up getting a bit messy. That messy narrative makes the film more fun than substantive and that was a bit disappointing.
El Royale was at its best in its early stages. The opening sequence was jaw dropping and set a high bar that the rest of the film unfortunately couldn’t reach. Goddard places the camera in the room and doesn’t touch it for the entirety of the scene. The neon red “El Royale” sign lights the room while a character, that we later discover is Felix O’Kelly (Nick Offerman), moves about the room. By the time this scene reaches its climax the intrigue is almost overwhelming. This transitions into the introduction to our main characters, Darlene Sweet (an impressive Cynthia Erivo), Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and Laramie Seymour Sullivan (a dynamic Jon Hamm). They all arrive at the motel, wanting to check in for the night. Unlike the previous scene, this one is driven by dialogue, which is fast and humorous. It reminds me of the dynamic dialogue found in a Tarantino film. The scene moves quickly and does a great job of establishing each character and their unique personalities. Hamm is the star of this scene, but as a whole the scene is great and does a great job setting up the mysteries.
If the opening scenes were El Royale at its best, then the cinematography and filmmaking follows closely behind. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Antonement, Anna Karenina) shot a beautiful film. The framing of each scene was thoughtful and creative. It constantly felt like something important was happening just outside of the frame, which was incredibly effective in building intrigue. Mixed with the beautiful production design from Martin Whist (A Series of Unfortunate Events), this was a gorgeous film to watch. Goddard’s decision on how to tell this mystery, aided to the overall experience. This is a story that is driven mainly by its characters. Those characters were compelling, and the performances were great. Breaking the story into smaller stories about each character worked, because it gave each character more time than usual to develop. El Royale was very compelling when it was solely focused on its characters, unfortunately that couldn’t be the entire movie.
The set up and build of El Royale was great, the payoff however, not so much. The third act of a thriller/mystery is usually a whirlwind of information and action. There are reveals and twists, usually disorienting and exciting in the best ways. The third act of El Royale didn’t have hardly any of that. The main cause of this must have been the lack of a central mystery. There was so much going on, it was hard to sink your teeth into any one thing. Each character’s own mystery didn’t seem to be connected to the other characters, which made for unsatisfying revelations. It was anti-climactic to hear a character solve a mystery through a throw-away piece of dialogue or figure it out without a connection to the greater story. The mysteries themselves were interesting but how they were handled was not. This bled into the third act that ended up being a bit of a mess. There was a lot of talking but was unlike the dynamic and fun dialogue from the beginning. This felt more like hollow exposition, it was also confusing as to why this plot got so much attention. It wasn’t that interesting, despite an incredibly interesting performance by Chris Hemsworth. The whole thing didn’t come together in the way that you would have hoped and leaves the film on a down note.
Even with a disappointing third act, Bad Times at the El Royale was a fun movie. The beautiful visuals and incredible opening made up for the sins towards the end. The performances were good enough to maintain interest and made up for the messy narrative. Solid filmmaking makes El Royale worth your time and if you’re willing to look past a few unanswered questions, then it will be a wonderful experience for you. It was for me.
3 out of 5 stars
Director: Drew Goddard Writer: Drew Goddard Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth , Caile Spaeny, Lewis Pullman & Nick Offerman Release Date: October 12th Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours and 21 minutes