There are some films you rush to the cinema to see and others you file away as a must-see at home. Bad Times At The El Royale was the latter for me and it’s interesting to note why. The cast is excellent, the who-done-it plot intriguing, and the cinematography are all on point in the trailer, but why did I wait? It’s possibly because the film didn’t seem to have an identity going with a more vignette style revealing a bit about each character, but not why we should care. That presumption I made about the trailer is accurate and permeates the film as you watch it. That isn’t to say this is a bad film, but it doesn’t seem to understand what it wants to do.
If you start with how this film ends (don’t worry I won’t spoil it) this film reads like the screenwriter had a destination and then complicated his way in getting there. If you think about it in this way the film is sort of aimless until it reaches its ending as if it were biding its time. Part of the problem is the film is very focused on showing off its elaborate set, giving each character a bit of scenery to chew up, and mixing in mysteries on top of mysteries. It does not do a lot of work in making you like the characters but instead expects you to be interested because of who is in the role. It certainly should be proud of its cast and fantastic sets (which are very well explained in the one feature that comes with this Blu-Ray), but the problem is there’s nothing driving the mystery as it meanders.
Note: My colleague Davis Pittman was considerably much happier with the film than I was. You can read Davis’ review here.
The film opens with a mysterious man in a hotel room. He rips up the carpet, the floorboards, and then places something inside only to put the room back to the way it was. It’s a scene that is shot from one angle and draws your attention but failingly doesn’t matter one bit until halfway through the film. From there you get brief introductions between characters. Like the audience, the characters in this film are figuring things out as they go along. It keeps your attention up, but for only so long before you grow tired of watching Jon Hamm’s character do a little searching, or while you wait for Jeff Bridges character to reveal something about himself. The biggest mysteries revolve around how the El Royale was built and its mysterious contents and guests. You never get a grasp though who these people are or why you should care. As if the screenwriter was aware of these two thirds through writing the script Chris Hemsworth’s hippy character makes a grand entrance. He certainly spices up the narrative and makes things a heck of a lot more interesting, but you’ll continue to grasp at straws as to why any of this matters. It’s possible none of it does.
In the one main special feature (there’s also a picture gallery and the usual trailer) that runs 28 minutes or so long the film’s director Drew Godard points out this is a film noir. I beg to differ and that’s possibly why the film is so off balance. There is a darkness here in there in the film (like a surprise drug addict among the characters), but there is way too much positivity and light to make this film noir. Jeff Bridges is likable and a good man (and even does the right thing), Cynthia Erivo has a beautiful voice and incredible heart, and even Jon Hamm wants to do the right thing. Hell, even Chris Hemsworth, the proverbial villain in the film, is revealed to be a frail soul who probably just needed more hugs from his mom. Long story short, the dark underbelly is false much like this films ability to keep your attention.
As I said above though the set design is incredible and you learn from the featurette that everything you see in this film was built as one piece in a warehouse. Great care was spent picking the right colors and framing each shot to tell the story. It’s obvious from the very first shot till the very end. The actors all do superb with what they are given and it’s hard to fault the production values too. It’s a well-made film. It’s just not a well written one.