Bad Times at the El Royale is the sort of film that’s not supposed to get made anymore. It’s a straight-up genre flick, for starters, one boasting a comparatively sizeable budget ($32 mill) and a mix of A-list, B-list and upcoming actors. Its marketing gives little away about its premise, beyond the setting (a run-down motel on the border of Nevada and California in the ‘70s), some flashes of violence, and the aforementioned cast: Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeney, Lewis Pullman and nascent star Cynthia Erivo.
The budget allows director Drew Goddard – of Cabin in the Woods – to pair his nasty story with the kind of formal flourishes you don’t tend to see in films of these pedigree nowadays. I want to talk about one flourish in particular. The film begins with the arrival of four strangers at the eponymous establishment. There’s vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Hamm), boasting an outrageously implausible southern accent; soul singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo), packing a trunk full of rugs and a whole tonne of talent to match; long-haired hippie Emily (Johnson); and the world’s least convincing priest, Father Flynn (Bridges).
It’s not long until we learn that Sullivan isn’t quite the innocent vacuum salesman he purports himself to be. After tearing apart the honeymoon suite to remove a bevy of listening devices, he wanders back into the hotel’s expansive lobby – featuring a stocked bar in California and a suite of poker machines in Nevada – pilfers the bellboy’s (Pullman’s) key and delves into the depths of the El Royale. Within he finds a series of dimly-lit corridors that allow employees to peer through one-way mirrors into each room. An unattended camera sits gawking into an unaccompanied room.
In of itself, this is an impressive twist so early in the piece; Goddard pulling back the curtain to reveal that this is no ordinary hotel. (Of course, we already knew that when we bought our ticket, but it’s nice to dispense with the formalities and get to the point sooner rather than later.) But the director exploits the voyeuristic – and, thus, cinematic – potential of the corridor by using an uncut shot to stalk up and down the corridor, following Hamm as he walks past each of the El Royale’s players. Emily slings a bound-and-gagged girl (Spaeney) over her shoulder, ‘Father’ Flynn has torn back the carpet and begun cracking open the floorboards, while Darlene’s soulful singing warms the cool corridor. In a few short minutes, Bad Times at the El Royale suggests the deception of its characters with real wit and style.
The film that follows is entertaining, sharp and often gorgeous (and I’m not just referring to Hemsworth’s abs, which are sure to be a reference point for personal trainers much like Brad Pitt in Fight Club). But it loses some of the spark of Hamm’s first foray into the crevices of the El Royale, largely because of pacing. The genius of the corridor scene is its narrative efficiency; while we don’t know all of the characters’ secrets yet, we can extrapolate an awful lot from what we glimpse through those one-way mirrors. The film calls for another hour or so to reveal its secrets and allow its characters’ diverse motives to clash; it certainly doesn’t require the two hours we get. Despite resembling a quality genre film from the ‘90s, El Royale’s pacing is pure prestige TV.
You can understand why Goddard elected to drag the story out. In part, it’s motivated by a very ‘90s impulse: to mimic Pulp Fiction. The screenplay is broken up into chapters centring on each of the characters, often commencing with expository flashbacks, which means that we get the opportunity to see some events from a few different perspectives. It doesn’t always work – Rashomon this ain’t – but it’s hardly disastrous.
More effective is how Bad Times at the El Royale weaves a recurring thread of faith through its genre thrills. Bridges’ priest get-up is narratively superfluous – as a ‘disguise’, it’s rather useless and entirely ineffective – but thematically it suggests the screenplay’s preoccupation with belief. That’s often spiritual, whether in the form of Hemsworth’s Charles-Manson-esque cult leader, Billy Lee, or when Darlene prays in a moment of true vulnerability. But it’s also more interested in broader questions about belief; specifically, how can America belief in itself and its ‘great men’ when there’s so much darkness and pollution festering beneath the surface? Granted, all this thematic work tends to be a touch overstated, but that’s part-and-parcel of the territory in a genre film prioritising genre thrills.
Bad Times at the El Royale is certainly a good time at the movies! It favourably recalls an era when genre movies had real budgets behind them and stars could sell a movie without a cape or magic hammer. It boasts flashes of brilliance, more than a few twists and one hell of a set. It’s also, sadly, about 40 minutes longer than it needed to be.