Maliha Momtaz Oishi
“It’s a game. It all starts with a simple choice. Which side are you on? Right? Wrong? God or no God? Red or black?”
Writer and director Drew Goddard, who has many high profile credits under his belt including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Good Place, Lost, The Martian, and The Cabin in the Woods, brings to you Bad Times at the El Royale, a tense mystery/period-thriller, set at the intersection of Agatha Christie’s narrative and Quentin Tarantino’s storytelling — with a hint of Wes Anderson’s signature cinematography.
The movie opens with a man (Nick Offerman) scurrying into a room of what seems to be a relatively upscale motel — his hands filled with duffel bags, and arms stained with blood, his hat and trench coat suggest the year being somewhere around the 1950s. The man proceeds to shuffle the furniture around, pries the floorboard open and stuffs the bags (presumably filled with cash) into it, and restores the room to its initial condition. The sinister ambience would lead you to think that someone’s bound to get shot, and you wouldn’t be wrong! The poor fellow gets shot the instant of the entrance of another man, which sets the premise for the film.
A priest, a salesman and a singer walk into a hotel… The story is properly set into motion about a decade later, circa 1969, when a group of people so incredibly variegated arrive at the El Royale, that it almost feels like a set-up for a bad dad joke. Director Drew Goddard unites a star studded cast, with Jon Hamm playing Laramie Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum salesman with secrets stashed away into his suitcase (literally), Jeff Bridges as Daniel Flynn — a benevolent priest with a smile that melts, Dakota Johnson playing Emily Summerspring — a belligerent hippie with a potty mouth, and Cynthia Erivo playing Darlene Sweet — a backup singer en route to Reno for a gig, her name indicative of her can-do-no-wrong nature. When the characters find themselves in the hotel lobby searching for someone at the reception, viewers are introduced to Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), a meek, seemingly awkward man who’s in charge of everything at the hotel, from handling check-ins to housekeeping. He pitches to everyone the novelty of the El Royale as a bi-state hotel, with a red line dividing the California and Nevada regions — each emblematic of different qualities.
“The El Royale is a bi-state establishment. You have the option to choose a room in either California or Nevada. In California, lies warmth and sunshine while Nevada holds the promise of hope and opportunity.”
To me, it seemed a great opportunity for the director to use this as a metaphor for something substantial. However, to my disappointment, there’s no further elaboration on it throughout the movie. Afterwards, we truly get to witness the synergy of all the characters for the first time, with their sharp remarks bouncing off each other whilst a television clip of Richard Nixon explaining the nature of guerrilla warfare, and why ceasefire won’t be effective in the Vietnam war fixes the movie’s time period in 1970 or some time around that.
As the movie progresses, we find out that looks can be deceiving — Laramie is actually an FBI agent, Father Flynn masks a shady past behind his vestment, Emily has a surprise guest hidden in the trunk of her car and Darlene is… still sweet. The El Royale is also not what meets the eye; in its glory days, the El Royale was an attraction for the big fish and high-rollers, a surefire joint for stirring up controversy. (It’s based on a real, infamous resort with scandalous connections to Marilyn Monroe, J.F.K., and Frank Sinatra.)
Sheepish concierge Miles Miller later reveals that he is an accomplice to an organisation that has surveillance in all of the rooms to gather dirt on the guests. The film takes a few more turns; with characters getting shot or smacked in the head every 10 minutes; drags itself out until we’re finally introduced to Billy Lee, a Manson-ish cult leader, played by Chris Hemsworth, with about 45 minutes left. At first glance, he seems like a run of the mill, long haired, shirt-unbuttoned, jeans-down-low hippie who reeks of gasoline — but Hemsworth does a stellar job of exploring the depth of his character and marks his presence in the movie despite having less screen time. The movie ends as it started, in a bloodbath with only two people surviving.
One of the biggest drawbacks of the movie is that it draws itself out for too long to reveal secrets that aren’t exactly secrets, had “plot twists” that were very predictable. Some scenes are repeated only to be shown from a different character’s perspective, which might frustrate a lot of the viewers. Questions about the characters’ pasts remain unanswered, which make for janky plot holes. Who was the shooter at the beginning of the movie? What was on the tapes? Most importantly, why is this a story that needs to be told? This movie can also be an example of trying to do too many things at once and failing to properly execute any one of them. Goddard took inspiration from Tarantino’s chapter based movies and tried combining it with an Agatha Christie plot, ending up with a maladroit mess of a result.
However, cinematography wise it definitely hits the mark. “There wasn’t a piece of clothing, furniture or a dialogue that wasn’t absolutely intentional and layered for a specific reason”, said Chris Hemsworth about Bad Times. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey materialises colours and articles seamlessly to add more depth to the scenes and characters. Each shot is expressive and easy on the eyes, and it has an excellent soundtrack as well, alongside Cynthia Erivo belting out stunning vocal performances. She stars in a pivotal scene in which Jon Hamm’s character discovers the secret surveillance corridors and watches her sing a song all the way through. The things that really stood out to me is how the movie incorporates melody into mundane actions taken by the characters and how much importance it places on exoneration in the afterlife as concierge Miles Miller wanting to be absolved of his wrong-doings is thematically recurrent in the film.
All in all, this movie following your usual strangers trapped in an escape room plot- Bad Times at the El Royale comes off to me as more of a director’s experiment rather than a story. It won’t leave you with a predicament or emotional attachment of any kind, but if you’re bored, it’s definitely worth a stream because, Chris Hemsworth in low rise jeans? Come on.