When Quentin Tarantino made bad people cool to watch back in 1994 with Pulp Fiction, every ambitious filmmaker in town suddenly saw a way into the Hollywood circus.
Tarantino’s scheme took a twist with 2015’s The Hateful Eight. Write a plot with a bevy of mischievous characters, hire well-known talent to play the parts, throw them into a setting together, and watch the big names fall with shock and awe following the action.
Bad Times at the El Royale, written and directed by Drew Goddard, is a heavy riff on Hateful Eight with a dash of James Mangold’s 2003 mystery flick, Identity, thrown in for good measure. The result is a good looking yet ultimately forgettable exercise in style over substance.
When we are first walk into Lake Tahoe’s house of unknown horrors in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, the suspicious characters stack up quick. Seymour Laramie (Jon Hamm) smiles often, judges quick, and clearly isn’t just a vacuum salesman. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) has a chip on her shoulder and doesn’t want to play nice with Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) doesn’t like anyone, checking in on the sign-in sheet with a bit of profanity.
The seemingly but probably not innocent Miles (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill) checks them into their rooms, dishing out room keys #1-7 with a sweaty hesitation that will be explained. It doesn’t take long before characters are snooping around the vacant yet checkered building, wondering if the secrets buried there are deeper than their own.
Everybody is clearly hiding something, and Goddard gives each actor in the flick a type to spin on before the real intentions are laid out. It’s no secret that Chris Hemsworth shows up as a guy who obviously has a problem with buttoning his shirts, but what else does he have in store?
The intriguing mystery that drove Goddard’s first directorial effort, Cabin in the Woods (also with a pre-Thor Hemsworth), is similarly laced into Bad Times here, but it lacks sizzle.
Here’s the thing: the first 30-45 minutes here are well played and drip enough juice for the viewer to follow along, but the more you find out who these people are, the more flawed the movie becomes. What starts out as genuine intrigue results in a shoulder shrugging rendition of cliched acceptance by the 90 minute mark.
It doesn’t help that the film is horribly paced, checking in at 140 minutes that feel just about as long as it sounds. There comes a point in the film where Goddard didn’t really know what to do in a particular scene, so he draws it out for 40 minutes hoping to find an answer. The social stereotypes and moral dilemmas of each character are the same types of plight spotted in characters from a hundred movies, so the interesting factor drys up by the two hour mark.
At one point, a character shows up just to try and speed the movie along with some predictable action and flat suspense. Whatever Goddard is trying to tell us with his story was lost in the shuffle of an extra long running time. The editor here fell asleep at the wheel.
The film lacks a purpose, other than to show the depravity of certain people who are driven by the wrong things, and that other souls are more than meets the eye initially. When the credits rolled, I was ready to go, not even staying to check and see which of those groovy songs on the soundtrack were worth remembering.
The performances are either phoned in, too far over-the-top, or not sufficient enough to be memorable. Hollow caricatures instead of good acting. Out of the entire cast, Bridges creates someone who manages to supply an ounce of conviction, but the eventual development of his “priest” doesn’t satisfy the initial tease.
Bad Times at the El Royale is visually pleasing and features a good looking cast with some violent splendor, but it’s a very forgettable film that didn’t do enough with the parts given and the setup. Tarantino’s film worked because the dialogue crackled and he was patient; Mangold’s film sustained the mystery and packed a punch with its finale; Goddard’s impersonation pales in comparison, because there’s a lack of vision and identity with this film.
If Bad Times at the El Royale had simply wanted to be a guilty pleasure action thriller, it may have worked. Goddard clearly thinks it should be something more, and the evident ambition ends up failing it.
While not a full-bodied stinker, this is a movie best kept for a dark rainy night at home. Shirts are optional of course.