“What if a bunch of strangers had one bad day?” is the main question Bad Times at the El Royale asks its audience. Well, a few people probably deserved it because they weren’t what they seemed, right?
Enemies become friends, friends become enemies. And in the end, well you’ll see if they gained anything in the end. All of those famous platitudes, at their most base level, are more interesting of a quandary to ponder than taking in a viewing of El Royale.
In a premise that could only be a Drew Goddard fever dream, Bad Times at the El Royale starts off with a fantastic setup. A bunch of people arrive at the titular El Royale hotel, complete with California and Nevada motifs (the hotel is literally split between both states, with kitsch to match), and mysteries start to slowly unravel: until they don’t, and new mysteries, as well as a wild pitch third act, enter the picture. Bad Times at the El Royale is a bizarre film, and not in an endearing way.
It simply tugs at too many threads, and by the time the yarn is in view for all to see, most of the pieces are dull or nearly naked to the human eye. Cynthia Erivo is the bright spot of it all: the anchor that holds everything together without a hint of overacting to her performance. Jeff Bridges plays it decently cool as a peculiar priest, John Hamm is an asshole, Dakota Johnson is an unpredictable firecracker, and Chris Hemsworth just kind of…appears in the film as a Charles Manson type that’s the leader of a cult. I told you it kind of goes off the rails.
By the time Hemsworth’s Billy Lee enters the fray you kind of just don’t care anymore. The cast that is remaining has overstayed their welcome, with personal journies like Lewis Pullman’s Miles Miller (the hotel clerk) culminating in utter absurdity. When things are actually happening on screen there’s a degree of tension there (two scenes stick out in particular), but most of time is spent meandering with little to no payoff all the way to the bitter end. The runtime is nearly an hour too long (Goddard must have really fought someone to keep Billy Lee in), but you can’t help just see it all the way through as you witness the many bright spots of the film.
Bad Times at the El Royale just isn’t sure what it wanted to be from top to bottom. It’s not particularly hard to follow but it squanders so much of its potential (and its talent) that its uncertainty shines through from every reflective surface. With a tighter and less indulgent script (its chief sin) it could have been so much more.