By Brandon Semler
The first 10 minutes of “Bad Times at the El Royale” immediately plants an image of what the film could be. Eyes brimming with secrets, conversation that is often guarded or fronting, and immediate clashes of personality lay the groundwork for the violent, straightforward thriller that is to come.
Well, at least it ended up being violent.
As he is one to do (remember “Cabin in the Woods?”), director Drew Goddard manages to flip this predetermined image on its head quickly and permanently, tossing the more conventional film up into the desert air.
“Bad Times” features several strangers meeting at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown desert hotel. Through a night of strange and violent events, alliances are formed, battles are waged and nothing is quite what it seems.
Goddard puts the film’s twisted timeline to good use, as we see different perspectives of the same events through different characters’ eyes, and snapshots of their lives before the hotel. The film takes a more straightforward approach in its last act (aside from one deviation) as the culmination of madness plays out.
Goddard’s use of musical numbers — mostly Motown — form a natural glue to the multiple layers unfolding throughout. The songs bring light to what seems to be inevitable blackness, and offer a slice of hope to what the future could bring for some of the hotel’s residents.
The film hinges on the relationship between Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), who form a fatherly/daughterly relationship, one of the few silver linings in the chaos. Get used to seeing Erivo on the screen. Her presence was something to be reckoned with.
While it never completely derails, the third act loses its way a bit. Chris Hemsworth, an actor I enjoy and respect greatly, is dreadfully miscast*. His performance just lacks a necessary energy, as well as much-needed subtlety. The film also grinds its momentus conclusion to a screeching halt for one final detour packaged with a helpful convenience for the wrap-up*. This time it was less welcome.
I want to see more films like “Bad Times.” It is unique in 2018 to see a film with a star-studded cast that is not attached to a comic book property or franchise, and VERY unique to see such a film on the big screen, not on Netflix or Amazon Prime in my living room. I recommend this film; let’s support it so we get more of them.
Spoiler notes (if you haven’t seen the movie and care about what happens in it, DO NOT read)
* Chris Hemsworth plays a cult leader that is specifically called out for faking philosophical and religious knowledge and leadership in order to get girls. Perhaps the dull performance could have been intended as a dull guy who was completely faking his charisma. But I think that’s probably generous. Anyway, still love you Hems!
* The film reveals that Miles Miller (Pullman) was a sharpshooter in Vietnam (flashback and all), and he is conveniently able to help get Daniel Flynn (Bridges) and Darlene Sweet (Erivo) out of the culty mess they’re in, while unfortunately dying along the way. Though I mostly enjoyed the unexpected flashbacks, this one took place in the midst of the film taking a more present approach in the third act, and tripped up the momentum. Terrific performance from Tom Holland though…I mean…Pullman.
Brandon Semler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @BrandonSemler