Part Tarantino homage, part paperback dime mystery novel, part cultural examination, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a lot of fun, a lot of nonsense and a lot of style.
Set over the course of one night with intermittent flashbacks, the story takes place at the El Royale motel in 1969 as singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), “salesman” Laramie (Jon Hamm), “priest” Father Daniel (Jeff Bridges), cult leader Billy (Chris Hemsworth), hippie Emily (Dakota Johnson) and others convene together with a host of different motivations, secrets and bad pasts alongside attendant Miles (Lewis Pullman). Over the course of the night, disguises are unearthed, truth is revealed and blood is shed.
Written and directed by Drew Goddard, the film is a classic example of style over substance. The film looks great, the rain sliding down the character’s faces, the bright neon glow of the El Royale sign, the spray of blood hitting the camera from a shotgun. The characters are interesting contradictions and misgivings. The fragmented style keeps the film chugging along despite its nearly 150-minute run time.
But the movie is missing some much-needed heart. We care about characters randomly and then forget about them because they don’t feel real, more stereotypes and caricatures. Their journeys don’t seem to really go anywhere and they don’t find any deeper meaning. The film lacks a coherent theme.
But it is a lot of fun along the way, seeing how each new character to the drama brings with her or him a new f*ed up backstory and seeing how they interact with previously established characters. If nothing else, “Bad Times at the El Royale” feels both new and old, a pulpy type of film we don’t see that often anymore that’s easy to admire if not empathize with.