Bad Times at the El Royale is a noir crime thriller cut from the Pulp Fiction mold. The juicy bits are scintillating, but the film runs long in stretches. The loquacious characters chew up the screen with wordy monologues. This tactic is initially clever, then becomes a drag. The mystery is intriguing. It just takes forever to get going.
The story takes place over the course of one night in 1969. The El Royale is a motel divided evenly across the California and Nevada border. Formerly a swinging party venue for crooners, politicians, and criminals, the El Royale has fallen into disrepair after losing its gambling license. Four random strangers check in on the fateful night. Jeff Bridges stars as Father Daniel Flynn, an aging priest with a memory problem. Cynthia Erivo co-stars as Darlene Sweet, a soul singer on her way to Reno. Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson play supporting roles as a vacuum cleaner salesman and crass Southerner respectively. Lewis Pullman rounds out the cast as Miles Miller, the seemingly hapless, singular employee of the hotel.
The hotel guests have no interest in each other at first. As the story progresses, the audience learns that each of them have ulterior motives for being there. Their paths begin to cross in unexpected ways. True intentions are revealed with dangerous consequences. The El Royale itself becomes a key player in the game. The hotel's dark history emerges as another sinister character enters the fracas.
Bad Times at the El Royale worships at the altar of Quentin Tarantino. The film is distinctively in his style. The scenes are introduced by a card, then executed according to the perspective of each character. We go back and forth in time until everyone is on the same footing for the climax. The format works in building the mystery. The first half of Bad Times at the El Royale is genuinely suspenseful. The problem is that the film then gets too caught up in its machinations. It slows to a crawl after establishing tension. Director/writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) wants to emulate Tarantino, but becomes too enamored with his characters.
Bad Times at the El Royale has two standout performances, good and bad. British Actress Cynthia Erivo is fantastic as Darlene Sweet. She's the film's stabilizing factor, the one character that's not overblown. Erivo gets a lot of screen time and makes the most of it. She's cool, calm, and collected when the scat hits the fan. Chris Hemsworth has a minor role as Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-esque cult leader. I couldn't stop laughing at him. Goddard has Hemsworth prancing around in an open shirt like a swooning gazelle. The character is supposed to be a magnetic psychopath, but comes off as ridiculous.
Bad Times at the El Royale has superb cinematography. Seamus McGarvey (Nocturnal Animals, Atonement) is a master manipulator of darkness and light. The film is awash in red and green, but eerily murky during pivotal scenes. I was particularly impressed with the lighting in the rain. McGarvey creates textbook noir visuals.
Bad Times at the El Royale delivers on the atmosphere and mystery. The chatty characters bloat the runtime to two hours and twenty minutes. Fifteen minutes could easily have been cut. The film would have been leaner and more impactful. Drew Goddard takes a decent stab at Tarantino, but hasn't equaled the master yet.