Considering director Drew Goddard’s previous movie, no doubt many will be entering Bad Times At The El Royale scanning for clues and hints from frame one. Cabin In The Woods was a movie that took that titular well-trodden premise and unfolded it like a puzzle box, subverting and deconstructing the conventions of the horror genre. Expecting the same relationship between Bad Times and the crime thriller genre is only understandable.
Bad Times At The El Royale hopes to reward that assumption from the start. The premise is simple and familiar: a cast of characters that would fit well in a Tarantino or Coens Brothers movie all arrive in the hotel of the movie’s name, a gimmick of a place that has seen better days, whose hallmark is straddling the border of Nevada and California. The West Coast on one side, glitz and vice on the other, a red line clearly dividing both from lobby to parking lot. The hotel is a striking monument to lavish 60s style, from its fading art-deco trappings to its cross-border gimmick. When the rain starts to pour, the place glistens with a sleek neon-tinged sheen. It’s just the perfect kind of weird and quirky location for a stylish crime thriller such as this one.
Given the amount of shifty looks and clashing personalities—whether that’s Jon Hamm’s rambunctious appliances salesman Laramie Sullivan or Jeff Bridges’ tired Father Flynn—you’re likely assuming everyone has something to hide. Why else would they be staying at the El Royale of all places? It’s not long until Bad Times reveals itself to be an episodic movie in the vein of Pulp Fiction, complete with chapter titles and flashbacks for its characters. The early acts of the film offer a fascinating web of reveals and intersecting plotlines, playfully presenting scenes from one perspective only to then provide a different context. At its best moments, I was thrilled at how the movie would swerve, often violently, from the route I thought a story was headed.
There’s a sense that all of this—the different chapters and their cliffhangers, the flashbacks, the shifts in perspective, the sense of off-kilter intrigue—is building towards something momentous, a larger cohesive tapestry, another swerve in context that might turn the overarching mystery on its head much like the movie has done for its individual stories. It’s a shame then, that Bad Times doesn’t quite achieve such a conclusion. For all its stylish visual direction and narrative misdirection, in the end, Bad Times At The El Royale is disappointingly straight-forward. That’s not to say it’s poorly-done; the final act is still tense and thrilling, a well-paced explosive finale. But after such build-up, twists, and turns, to end on such a traditional note can’t help but feel anticlimactic.
Despite those narrative frustrations, what keeps Bad Times engaging throughout is its characters. You can’t help but be intrigued by them, given the set-up. Cynthia Erivo and Bridges are the standouts here, both imbuing their unfolding stories with heart and pathos, while Hamm does his best Don Draper impression with a hint that there might be something more beneath that sleazy salesman smile. Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny work well together, even if their story ends up overshadowing the movie as a whole. Even Chris Hemsworth makes the most of his performance despite a late appearance, clearly enjoying the opportunity to play against type as a Manson-esque figure.
Bad Times At The El Royale isn’t quite the subversive crime thriller that fans of Cabin in the Woods might be expecting. When Bad Times is gradually revealing its hand, the movie is intriguing and engaging, keeping you guessing and reassessing the nature of characters and plot. But it’s a film where that journey is unfortunately more exciting and interesting than the destination; after all that happens prior, the eventual finale largely comes across as wasted potential.