Sam’s Take: Good times are lost in “Bad Times at The El Royale”

Illustration by Ashlyn Rudolph

Samuel Goodrich
Staff Writer

Five strangers, five secrets and one run-down hotel that reveals all truths. This is the set-up for screenwriter and director Drew Goddard’s ensemble crime film “Bad Times at the El Royale.”

Filled to the brim with great actors, a clever script and Goddard’s artistic direction, this should be the recipe for a classic. While not an unenjoyable film, “El Royale” is weakened by inconsistent pacing and overabundance of material.

Set in 1969, the film takes place at the El Royale hotel, a once-bustling establishment that rests on the border between Nevada and California. Five strangers sign into the hotel for the night, but they all come with more than just physical baggage.

“El Royale” has a promising beginning, where the actors spend time trying to sign into the hotel as the mysteries begin to build. Everyone is on display here: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth and Lewis Pullman all act wonderfully. The script is also hilarious and well-written, conveying small character details that compliment each performance.

The cinematography and direction are equally impressive. Goddard makes great use of one-takes and symbolic framing, creating iconic and effective imagery. The acting, writing and filmmaking consistently impress throughout the nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, making it somewhat bearable during the slower points.

Here lies the film’s major issue: pacing. The opening moments of “El Royale” — when the characters sign in and their intentions for being there become less obscure — seem to go on for more than 30 minutes. Major plot developments throughout are bookended by flashbacks for each character, mostly revealing how they got to the hotel.

While an interesting premise, the execution worsens the crawling pacing prevalent in the beginning. Dialogue scenes drag on and on; the mysteries and characters are not interesting enough to carry the audience’s attention. These scenes needed something more to make them work — perhaps more emphasis and impact in the filmmaking.

The film also stumbles in trying to juggle so many plotlines at once, feeling like multiple movies where we spend half the runtime catching up on what we missed. Each character is interesting, but only Bridges’ and Erivo’s characters stand out as the most entertaining and fleshed-out.

Because they are so well-realized, it becomes confusing when the film switches focus to Johnson’s story, which becomes the center of the last hour or so. Bridges and Erivo become side characters at this point, but they were the only ones we truly knew or cared about for the first part of the film. The final 40 minutes feel dragged out, moving at a snail’s pace when it’s clear the movie is trying to evoke feelings of tension and excitement.

There are many wonderful, shocking and entertaining moments that save “El Royale” from being unbearable. Individual scenes, performances, lines of dialogue and cinematography kept me from being completely uninvested.

The themes of redemption and morality also kept my attention, but only for so long. Yet, I’m not sure I fully understand what the film’s trying to get at, with many ideas feeling scattered. I’m hoping to give the movie a second viewing to see if these issues remain now that I know where it’s going.

I desperately want to love “Bad Times at the El Royale.” It has the ingredients of a great film — in fact, one that I would particularly enjoy. The end result is a slow-moving mess, but it’s not unworthy of your time. If you have the time and the patience, “El Royale” is worth a stay, at least for one night.


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