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Movie Review

Bad Times at the El Royale Review – so much style, a little too much substance

Drew Goddard’s second feature falls flat despite strong performances from Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth and Jon Hamm

Bad Times at the El Royale

Amidst the sudden swell of Oscar hopefuls and the last dregs of a fading blockbuster season, the trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale, the sophomore feature from Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), was one that intrigued. It highlighted everything good about the film: a superbly constructed backdrop, a stellar cast, and the promise of a delectably neo-noir mystery. The trailer zips sweetly through its two-and-a-half minute runtime so when we’re met with an overly-layered, relatively serious flick it was more than a bit jarring and fairly underwhelming.

More annoyingly, Bad Times starts off promisingly. Goddard immerses us in the El Royale, a formerly popular spot well past its heyday, deep in the woods much like the cabin from his first film. The hotel is situated on the borderline between Nevada and California, with a literal red line running down the middle of the hotel. It’s a cute detail that sets the stylistic tone early on. The timid hotel clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman) greets his guests with the charming spiel – in California lies warmth and sunshine and, more importantly, a liquor licence, and in Nevada there’s the allure of ‘hope and opportunity’.

And it is the El Royale’s guests that gave this ill-fated hotel caper such keen interest to begin with. Jon Hamm plays a sweet-talkin’ southern salesman; Jeff Bridges a priest; Dakota Johnson a prickly hippie; British actress Cynthia Erivo, who features in Steve McQueen’s upcoming Widows, portrays a struggling soul singer. Each character is masked by a secret, which Goddard unveils one by one throughout. But as the secrets unfold, the plot becomes more convoluted and stuffed. As the balls multiply, Goddard struggles to juggle them with aplomb. He goes about his work painstakingly, tying up potholes and loose ends with tight double bows. Thus, Bad Times is stretched out into an exhausting two-and-half hour slog.

But as the film nears its denouement, Goddard introduces the hip-gyrating, Charles Manson ripoff, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Surprisingly, despite Hemsworth’s enjoyable romp, it’s a misstep that throws the film further out of balance. It’s this and the numerous other subplots that split the identity of Bad Times. Goddard refers to Vietnam, the Manson family, and Hoover’s paranoid FBI, providing the standard time period details that add little to the tale.

Stylistically, as slick and as beautiful as Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography and Lisa Lassek’s editing makes it, Bad Times takes too many cues from Quentin Tarantino. The use of chapters and non-linear narrative to differentiate the characters’ backstories is highly reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and the claustrophobia of the El Royale and how it clumps its characters together instantly reminded me of The Hateful Eight. It all feels a little too ‘been there, done that’.

But Bad Times is not a complete failure and that’s the frustrating thing. There are some strong performances from the ever reliable Jon Hamm who is assembling a solid CV post-Don Draper, Cynthia Erivo, and Jeff Bridges in particular. As previously mentioned, Chris Hemsworth is great fun to watch but his character just doesn’t fit with the flavour of the film. With a bit of tweaking there’s a good film in there – hell, there’s probably four or five good films in there if you sieve out the subplots. But for all of its visual delight, Bad Times suffers from Goddard’s overthinking. The engaging plot is snuffed out by a messy amalgamation of subplots and premises. Bad Times is a cautionary tale of less is more and more is less.


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