Welcome to the El Royale. In case the vacant parking lot in between the deserts of California and Nevada or the incessant flickering of the neon sign above the ornate wooden doors weren’t clear enough indicators, not very many people stay at the Royale anymore. “This place used to be hustlin’ and bustlin’,” says Laramie Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum salesman played by the charismatic Jon Hamm. Therefore, when seven strangers all show up to the El Royale on the same day, filling its battered and once empty rooms, a mystery presents itself: why are these strangers here, and more importantly, what are they hiding?
Bad Times at the El Royale presents itself as a neo-noir film, and quite frankly, it works well as such. Between the 60’s music and the drab but once-promising atmosphere of the cryptic hotel, the setting of the film alone is enough to build up tension. Although the movie takes itself seriously, there is comedic value to be found in Bad Times, which functions well as a tension-breaker, allowing audiences to relax.
However, what truly allows Bad Times to shine is its storytelling, which is absolutely flawless. Juggling seven characters in the span of two hours and twenty-two minutes is insanely difficult, and yet, Drew Goddard is able to do just that, while also assigning each character a complete character arc. The storytelling is told in non-chronological segments from the perspective of each guest at the hotel, which is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (the blood and violence is also very Tarantino-esque). Viewers are presented with the same event multiple times, but from the eyes of different characters. This is what truly allows each character to have a complete character arc. Although the storytelling is thorough, Drew Goddard refuses to spell anything out for audiences; viewers are meant to put together their own conclusions of events.
The genius behind the narrative of Bad Times can also be found in its multi-functional story. Audiences who simply want a visceral mystery film with a dash of comedy will find themselves more than satisfied by the end of the movie. However, behind the guise of a neo-noir film lies an accurate period piece as well as a strong commentary on society. The music of the 60’s is obviously present throughout the film, but the story is also able to allude to the presidency of Richard Nixon, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Manson Murders, and even the Vietnam War. Each of these backdrops in the movie allow more savvy audiences to find a deeper purpose behind the movie. Social justice is also another topic addressed in the movie, although it’s done so subtly that it doesn’t feel like it’s beating a dead horse.
The acting in the movie is fantastic, especially by lead actors Cythia Erivo and Jeff Bridges. It’s no coincidence that Erivo perfectly plays the role Darlene Sweet, an aspiring singer. Erivo is an incredibly talented broadway actress and singer, and both of those traits clearly shine throughout the film. Jeff Bridges’ rustic and weathered acting allows him to convincingly portray the character of Father Daniel Flynn, a grizzled priest. Each interaction between the seven guests at the hotel is well-done in terms of both dialogue and acting.
Overall, behind the eerie and well-crafted backdrop of the El Royale lies a cleverly crafted story, in which the great cast of Bad Times shines in each of their performances, leaving audiences satisfied as they finish piecing together the puzzle Drew Goddard lays out for them.