Bad Times at the El Royale has all the trappings of a cool movie. An eye-catching set, an A-list cast, and a mysterious premise. Despite this promising foundation, the flick lacks a story that can elevate noir films to must-see movies.
The movie begins with a flashback. A hotel guest buries money underneath the floorboards of his room. Ten years later, a handful of travelers check into the desolate Nixon-era El Royale hotel. Each of the characters has a backstory that is explored through clandestine one-way glass located in each room. These faux mirrors separate the suites from a secret hallway. As the movie unravels, the guests and the El Royale have identities that belie initial impressions.
Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, and Lewis Pullman form the initial ensemble of Bad Times at the El Royale. Chris Hemsworth eventually turns up as Billy Lee, a Manson-like cult leader. Even though Hemsworth has a brief stay at the El Royale, he nearly steals the movie with a captivating performance.
The bulk of these characters creates an intriguing first half of the movie. Director Drew Goddard’s creative use of the hotel’s illicit mirrors complements the introduction of each guest. After the flick’s early success, much of the remaining two-hour, twenty-one minutes is spent searching for the movie’s greater purpose.
There are two mysteries in the film. The first is dirt on an influential figure who stayed at the El Royale. While the identity of the powerful individual is hinted at, the mystery is ultimately inconsequential to the plot. The loot’s final destination is an important, yet anti-climatic story. The film was hurt by a lack of a unified purpose for bringing these strangers together.
The movie is bloated by excessive screen time. Singer Darlene Sweet (played by Erivo) is the most featured character in the film. Her singing bolsters the Bad Times at the El Royale soundtrack and provides some glamour. This is costly to the story. The focus on Sweet wastes time that could have been spent on more interesting characters. Exploring their backgrounds would have justified the movie’s running time.
Given that the film is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Goddard had ample time to go into detail about kidnappings, banks heists, and the closeted skeleton that could have derailed the image of a public figure. Instead he gave the least dynamic character prominent screen time.
These creative choices define Bad Times at the El Royale. Noir films thrive on the classic ah-ha moment. The scene that clarifies mystery and justifies investment in the film. Nothing in the movie makes a lasting impression. No twist. No intricate plot. No psychological thrills. Only an incomplete piece of cinema.
This is disappointing. There is so much potential in Bad Times at the El Royale. The set is impressive eye candy. A vintage Sixties Vegas-style hotel creates instant classic appeal. There is also a talented cast on hand that could have yielded memorable characters. The “strangers on a train” premise allows for infinite possibilities. Instead, the underdeveloped film is little more than just a cool idea that teases its audience.