Review: While Fun, "Bad Times at the El Royale" Falls Short Being Innovative

Cameron Lee ‘20 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Drew Goddard deconstructed the horror genre to its absolute limit in his debut film, Cabin in the Woods. Now, six years later, Goddard has done the same to the mystery/crime genre that Quentin Tarantino helped usher into the mainstream in the mid-90s, albeit not to the same level as he did in Cabin in the Woods. Imagine Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight; now take away it’s Western aesthetic and motifs and put all the characters in a strange hotel set in the late 1960s and you get this film. But, unlike the former Tarantino bloodbath, Bad Times at the El Royale wastes no time setting up the seven main characters before revealing everyone’s true motive for being at the hotel.

Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.
Unfortunately, around the halfway point, the film begins to drag; Goddard clearly thought the script was clever enough to keep the audience entertained while also fulfilling his requirement to mess with the well-established genre. The script jumps around in time, each section gets an old-fashioned title card just like most Tarantino and Wes Anderson films, good one-liners get repeated for humorous effect, some of the violence serves as a period to a punchline albeit in a more shocking fashion rather than the dark humor that punctuates every violent act in a Tarantino film. Goddard uses every trick in the book to try and subvert his film but, unlike Cabin in the Woods, Bad Times at the El Royale does not transcend its own genre; it’s simply really good imitation of it and nothing more.
That being said, there’s still plenty of fun to have here; all the actors from the mysterious preacher (Jeff Bridges) to a generous vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) and a pop singer (Cynthia Erivo –the clear standout performance of the piece) deliver good performances. There are other standouts in the cast but no one seems to be having more fun than Chris Hemsworth, who plays a charming psychotic cult leader vis a vis a Charles Manson figure. He doesn’t arrive until late in the film, but he brings so much energy and charisma to the film that the film almost regains its former spark from the 1st half until it somehow lost it towards the middle.
Cailee Spaeny and Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale. Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.
From a crafts perspective, the film hits all the right notes. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is smooth and crisp, like something out of a Soderbergh film, and features some great tracking shots and greatly benefits from the wonderful production design that perfectly captures a warped version of the 60’s.
The film has surprising moments in the first half, but it runs out of tricks by the second half. A good cast giving it their all can only do so much to pad out an over-long film that outstays its welcome – just like The Hateful Eight. It’s worth wondering what Goddard wanted to say about this particular genre, as it’s not entirely clear in the finished project. Bad Times at the El Royale is like a fun film exercise; it’s enjoyable in the moment, but after it’s all over, the point of the exercise is never answered and it quickly fades into the background ­­– just like watching an on-demand movie at a hotel.
Overall Grade: B-
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