Not that great of a time.
Bad Times at the El Royale had the beginnings of a great film; a stellar cast, interesting characters, and a beautiful 1950s-like setting. However, El Royale gets lost in its own flashy homage and forgets to produce anything of substance from the story.
The film is written and directed by Drew Goddard, who has works include A Cabin in the Woods, The Martian, World War Z, Cloverfield, and even episodes of Lost. He’s also written a shit load for Netflix’s Daredevil series (seriously, Google this and you might be surprised as I was). With such a solid resume (even though I wouldn’t count World War Z exactly solid) I was surprised that El Royale wasn’t as good as Goddard’s past work.
The film follows seven guests who check in to the El Royale hotel, each sharing a shady past and an uncertain future. Their lives begin to intertwine when secrets come seeping out of their rugged suitcases. And yes, the premise does sound very familiar to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
Unlike that film, the major problem with El Royale is that it struggles to juggle seven character arcs. Each of their story is slowly teased out in the beginning and then abruptly tied off. By the end of the film I was left wondering what was the point of all of it? It didn’t feel like there was an end goal that tied in these stories and I don’t know what the purpose was for having these arcs.
The film builds these beautifully flawed and complex characters but then doesn’t utilize them to their full potential. This is one of those cases where the story would have been better formatted as a television series. It could have solved my issues with underdeveloped character trajectories; glaring loose ends that were never answered; and a disappointing ending which I can’t go into without spoiling.
In saying this, the film isn’t a complete disaster. The production design of the hotel was brilliant. One of the neatest aspects was the corridors inside the hotel that were built with two-way mirrors, allowing you to see into each of the rooms. It’s an interesting and original touch that adds a lot of intriguing tension to the story.
The hotels foyer area is also a wonderful throwback to the early 1950’s. It hosts a record jukebox, a lavish gold bar and several milk bar styled vending machines. The rhythmic soul music that oozes out of the jukebox fits perfectly with films homage to 50’s. This is further accentuated by the character Darlene Sweet, who created a stunning soundtrack that kept my interest piqued.
While the cast is full of well-known names such as Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, and Chris Hemsworth, it’s unlikely duo Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo that steal the show. Erivo plays timid soul singer Sweet who after being taken advantage of by her music producer decides to try and make it on her own. Meanwhile Bridges plays Catholic Priest Daniel Flynn who is obsessed with digging for buried money under the floorboards of the hotel rooms.
When Flynn realizes he has the wrong room, he attempts to befriend Sweet to get access to hers instead. Their unlikely friendship is a joy to watch, but it’s Bridges’ honest portrayal of someone suffering from early on-set Alzheimer’s that gives his character a sympathetic side that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Sweet also gives sympathy to Flynn as he stumbles his way through old forgotten memories; giving their bond a relatable human factor that I enjoyed.
El Royale is an interesting mix. There are some excellent parts to its presentation, but the most important aspect of story is still somewhat a mess. This is far from Goddard’s best work, which is a bit sad, but hopefully this might be later rebooted as a television series. The story and characters just feel too big of a beast for a 2-and-a-half-hour film and I’d much rather see it play out in a series. Ultimately if you skipped this film, you wouldn’t be missing much. Plus, there are other great films to watch instead (see our Mandy review) and hopefully more being released soon (I’m looking at you Suspiria, please be good).