The El Royale has seen better days. Situated directly on the Nevada/California border (rooms cost $1 more in California, you can only drink on the Nevada side), the hotel was once a happening spot where all manner of celebrity and politician would stay. Now, it can barely fill a handful of rooms with regular passersby. As it is about to collapse into dreary obscurity, four strangers show up, giving the establishment a night that it will never forget.
Everything in this film has a secret. The unsavory history of the hotel, shrouded in mystery. What secrets lie within its walls? The cast, and the characters they play, are the draw here, and it is through them that we slowly uncover the mysteries of the inn as well as their reasons for being there. And just like the hotel, they’re all not what they appear to be. Jeff Bridges is a “priest” who returns to the hotel to retrieve some stolen cash that was hidden there a decade earlier. Jon Hamm plays a government agent posing as a vacuum salesman, sent to retrieve surveillance equipment. Dakota Johnson, a mysterious wild woman who is clearly hiding something, and Cynthia Erivo moonlights as a struggling singer who is just passing through on her way to a gig round out the guests for the evening. Throw in a heroin addicted hotel manager and you’ve got a recipe for some serious destruction. There’s a lot going on here with these characters, and each gets their own flashback segment over the course of the film in order to flesh out their motivations. All the principal actors here are excellent in their roles, with Bridges and Erivo giving particularly striking performances.
Bad Times is a noir thriller, and it does provide the tension it promises, eventually. It takes a while to get going, and at nearly two and a half hours, a quicker pace would have been appreciated. I don’t mind slow build up, but some characters get too much or unnecessary backstory, and the film would have been better letting us discover who some of these people are through their actions in the present instead of through flashbacks. A lot of the build up goes up in flames (both literally and figuratively) once Chris Hemsworth’s character enters the mix. While it’s amusing in a bubble, the conflict he brings is at odds with where the story seemed to be heading. While his arrival was foreshadowed, the way he completely owns the narrative in the third act feels out of place, as he played no role in the main conflict of the story up until the end. I liked these scenes, though they felt as if they were the ending to a different movie.
I feel as though Bad Times at the El Royale is destined for cult classic status. Good enough to be enjoyed, but too messy to be considered great. The atmosphere here is top notch, and when the film knows where it’s going, it’s fantastic. But unfortunately it falls apart a bit at the end, relying on the actors to carry it to the finish rather than the story. Will you have a good time? Probably. But repeat stays at the El Royale totally depend on your ability to enjoy it for its individual moments and not the larger picture.