Bad Times at the El Royale opens with Nick Offerman burying something under the floorboards of a hotel and it ends with Jim O’Heir introducing a singer at a club. If the marketing for this movie were just those two cameos, I would have been hooked. As a Parks and Recreation addict, nothing makes me more excited than seeing my favorite actors outside of Pawnee, Indiana. This film, however, strayed far from the cozy confines of a network television comedy.
It starts off tame enough. Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo’s characters are introduced early on and the movie begins to develop as a mystery. The only mystery by the end of the film, though, is what the actual hell it was about. Nothing is off limits at the El Royale: not robbery, cults nor bestiality — and certainly not murder. Bad Times, indeed.
Being completely honest, I am not sure why Bad Times at the El Royale was made. It is one of the rare films that left me utterly baffled exiting the theater. The plot is far too difficult to explain in the short span of a review. Not in a bad way; I thoroughly enjoyed Drew Goddard’s wild, and at times, nonsensical, thriller. Scenes were shown from multiple characters’ points of view, a style that got tedious at moments, but ultimately lent more clarity to the film. Bad Times at the El Royale is something akin to a love child born from the unholy union of Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight.
If I were to complain about one thing, it would be that the “good versus evil” dichotomy got slightly heavy-handed as the movie wore on. Goddard tried to squeeze as much symbolism as he possibly could into the near two-and-a-half hour runtime. He could have toned it down a little. Hotel guests don outfits of contrasting colors. A physical red line divides “gloomy” Nevada and “sunny” California. News is delivered via a flickering black and white television seated on the check-in counter. Two characters fight as metaphorical representations of right and wrong. Honestly, Paradise Lost handled this topic far less tediously.
The El Royale presents a facade of splendor, yet it has fallen on hard times after losing its gambling license. Similarly, characters reserve their private personalities to their rooms, and most true personas are not publicly revealed until the final act. The hotel now appears to be run solely by the perpetually unsettled Miles (Lewis Pullman). Under direction from management in Pennsylvania, Miles secretly records guests through two-way mirrors set in their rooms. He is far from the most deceptive character, and you do not learn his backstory until the movie is nearly over. Jeff Bridges is not a priest and Jon Hamm is not a vacuum salesman (although he has the charisma to be an effective one).
Bad Times almost feels like three movies (or more) squished into a single feature. Storylines begin and end abruptly as if Goddard began writing a character’s arc and then had a stroke before he could finish. The first murder occurs about only thirty minutes into the film and is never really given more than a cursory “oh yeah, that dead guy” ever again.
Goddard’s film continuously ascends, but never reaches a true crescendo. Massacres that would be climactic in most other movies are immediately brushed to the side by yet another flashback or even more killing. The scene that could feasibly be considered the apex is far too short, and for that reason, I would hesitate to say that the movie was deliberately climbing to that point.
Visually appealing, the film managed to entertain me most of the way through. Colors are vibrant and the set design is admirable. The action is primarily focused on the main characters with few shots wasted on frivolous details or extra actors.
Bad Times at the El Royale ultimately provides a marathon of entertainment at the low-low cost of leaving the theater completely and thoroughly perplexed. It might not become a cult classic, but it’s certainly worth a watch.
Jeremy Markus is a freshman in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.