Bad Times at the El Royale: the Tarantino-esque throwback you didn’t know you needed

By Leigh Monson
   Writer-director Drew Goddard is no stranger to character-centric dramatics, as he previously directed the horror deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods and is likely best known for writing The Martian, films both renowned for their performances and their understanding of how people act under restricted conditions. Bad Times at the El Royale is Goddard’s first time directing a script he wrote, and the result is decidedly reminiscent of early Tarantino work, like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, placing a handful of colorful strangers in a closed, adversarial situation as they unravel the mysteries of each other’s backstories and how they interrelate to one another.
   In 1969, few people come to the hotel El Royale, which straddles the line between California and Nevada. And yet one day sees the disoriented concierge (Lewis Pullman) welcoming four strangers to the hotel: a kindly priest who seems to be hiding something behind his gracious smile (Jeff Bridges); a singer on her way to Reno with only her bedrolls for company (Cynthia Erivo); a smooth-talking vacuum salesman who is perhaps too eager to uncover the secrets of his fellow patrons (Jon Hamm); and a rude young woman who only signs the guestbook with two words that rhyme with “Huck New” (Dakota Johnson). As each of these characters is revealed to be more than they say, their conflicting motives threaten to destroy them all, leaving the El Royale as the last place they ever stay the night.
   Bad Times at the El Royale is defined by its Acting with a capital A. Scenes go long as actors monologue and converse their way through a puzzle box plot that doesn’t need to be as obtuse as it is, yet is made to be engrossing by the skill of the actors tasked with conveying it. Bridges is the star the film leans on the most, as the priest has what is probably the twistiest and most complex motivation and personal tragedies, but the big revelation here is Erivo, whose history as a stage performer informs a dramatic gravitas that translates into a surprisingly magnetic screen presence. This may be because El Royale’s long-scene construction lends the film a theatrical quality, but make no mistake in thinking El Royale could be anything but a cinematic film when the inevitable, shocking violence comes to the forefront.
   But for as much as the acting is enjoyable in terms of craft, scenes do tend to lean a bit on the indulgent side, necessitating a runtime that’s probably twenty minutes too long without having any real legitimate opportunities to leave scenes on the cutting room floor. The plot is tight, if a bit on the improbable side, but the dialogue has the potential to be exhausting, even if every line is about providing insight to this fascinating microcosm of shattered American dreams. Even so, Bad Times at the El Royale is anything but a bad time, and while it isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite film this year, it’s a nice distraction from the already-mounting exhaustion of the Oscar season.

4/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.