Director: Drew Goddard
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Writers: Drew Goddard
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Ervio, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman
The dazzling opening scene of “Bad Times at the El Royale” is wild, stylish, and a great tone-setter for the rest of the film. However, the rest of the film fails to live up to the same intrigue and loses itself by the credits.
The story begins with a fabulously edited and acted scene from Nick Offerman (Felix O’ Kelly) where he hides a briefcase under a hotel floorboard before getting shot by a mysterious figure. The rest of the film follows five unconnected, mismatched characters that mishmash into a story that doesn’t understand it’s own vision.
Goddard is an oddball director. “Cabin In The Woods,” his 2012 horror, is in the same vein as Bad Times and both films are an excuse to play out some sick fantasy of overindulgence, but in this instance, the film loses its focus. The premise is interesting, seven strangers with a secret check into a hotel, but once the intrigue is setup the film meanders for about two hours before just kind of ending.
The strength of the film is the look from the McGarvey cinematography, the colorful set design, and most importantly, the lively characters. While the plot is extra thin, the character writing and acting make it a fun film to watch. The standout, for my money, was the short introduction of Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm). His character to a large extent shows the problem with the screenplay. Characters are introduced and taken out of the story at a rapid pace and the more this takes place the less the story makes sense.
Let me give you an example of the scripts unfocused nature. Goddard goes from conventional yet seductive take on a noir before throwing in the hotel’s angle on the story which adds elements that the story fails to go further into detail. Goddard has a strange fascination with secretly watching people through two-way mirrors. The filmmaking is strong, but the script ruins an otherwise well-made film.
Back to the characters, Goddard does create wildly creative characters but then blows them away with a shotgun in quick succession. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), as it’s written on the hotel ledger, and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Ervio) form a strange bond in the film that doesn’t feel organic whatsoever. Then there’s Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and Ruth Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny) that bring light to a cult leader and main antagonist Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who again, feels out of place. The character archetypes of interesting, but it feels like a mashed up script with no direction.
The structure of the script, however, is a bright spot but also lends itself to the long run time. It’s structured in chapters, focusing on the character’s backstory. Fortunately, the pacing of the film kept me entertained and engaged, as the chronological order of shots is put out of order, making the series of events come to fit together like puzzle pieces. Finding out what happens next keeps it entertaining, but when the film ends and I’m still asking that question is where I find problems.
It’s enjoyable as a non-complex yet stylish film. It’s got great music, a good look, interesting characters, but is lost in the story. It’s a bit of a flop, but some will find it more enjoyable than myself.