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'Bad Times at the El Royale' Review

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October 25, 2018
Hunter Friesen
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A priest, a singer, a vacuum salesman, and a drifter walk into a hotel. They all have a story and need a room for a specific reason, but only one of them is telling the truth. Each one is untrusting of the other and plans out how to survive the night as a severe storm moves in. Then enters a crazy cult leader who wants to exact revenge on the one who wronged him. With five seedy characters and a suspicious bellhop, a one night stay at the El Royale may come with a fatal price. 

Bad Times is directed by Drew Goddard, who previously directed and wrote the comedy/horror The Cabin in the Woods and wrote the screenplay for The MartianGoddard does well at directing this film. He does make some mistakes from time to time, but they aren’t too severe. The first of his mistakes come from the pacing and overall length of the film. The 141-minute runtime is weird as the film felt like it could easily have been cut to two hours or justifiably stretched to three hours. This is due to some areas of the story being dragged on more than need be and some areas getting not as much as attention. The first act of the film slowly builds up each separate character with their backstory and motives. Then the second wizzes by and the third needlessly slows everything back down again.

Goddard does do good work with the camera as he gives the film a dark washed overtone to match the 60s era feel. He also uses a wide array of camera techniques to tell the layered story. Some scenes are played out multiple times from different angles to convey each character's viewpoint. There also is a hefty amount of symbolism and thematic imagery within each frame that pushes the narrative along without the use of words. One scene that really stands out is a seven-minute tracking shot where the camera follows one character as they go room by room and spy on the others. It’s a suspenseful sequence that gives a good amount of insight into each character in a short span of time. 

Along with directing, Goddard also serves as the sole writer for the original story. He divides the film into chapters based around the room a certain character is staying in. The technique works well to distribute time to develop each character. Not everyone gets equal time, but everyone gets enough to make them important to the overall narrative. 

The intersection of many different character’s stories leads to the script being filled with lots of fun twists and surprises that continually come out of nowhere. Some of them are predictable once revealed, but many aren’t and keep you on the edge of your seat. There are some plot holes and untidy loose ends that are quite obvious near the end. However, they really don't harm the quality of the story and are more of an afterthought.

Bad Times boasts a sizeable and star-studded cast. Most of the actors fare well with some doing better than others. Jeff Bridges does pretty well as the elderly priest looking for a little vacation. Bridges is able to make his character be believably evil as well as have a sympathetic heart. It’s not his best work, but nowhere near his worst. Cynthia Erivo is the best out of the cast as she plays the singer making her way to a gig in Reno. She provides her own voice to the role and confidently takes charge of each scene. 

Dakota Johnson and Jon Hamm kind of just skate through and don’t provide any real defining moments. They’re not bad, but it feels like anyone could have filled the roles. Lastly, Chris Hemsworth does good work as the Jesus-like cult leader who likes to preach with his shirt open. Hemsworth brings both his comedic and dramatic skills together and creates an uneasy character that keeps the suspense high throughout.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a fun thriller that tells a complex story in an enjoyable fashion. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but minor mistakes aren’t enough to ruin the overall product. In a fall season full of heavy films trying to send a message it feels good to have a film that only wants its audience to sit down and have a good time.

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