"Bad Times" is a great time as the cinema
Refreshingly original and perpetually gripping, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a taut crime thriller that explores how corrosive our secrets can become, and more importantly, how the past never stays buried for long.
The year is 1968. The El Royale, a bi-state hotel where guests have the option to stay in either Nevada or California, has seen better days. Once a hotspot for the elite, it has fallen into ill repute. A handful of disparate guests, including an old priest (Jeff Bridges), a talented singer (Cynthia Erivo), an abrasive hippie (Dakota Johnson), and a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), arrive at the otherwise empty hotel to find it is staffed by just one young man, the frequently and suspiciously absent Miles (Lewis Pullman.) It’s clear from the beginning that no one is who they seem, and as the night progresses, their secrets unravel as their paths cross with surprising and violent consequences.
The film begins with a frantic man (Nick Offerman) ripping up the floorboards in a hotel room, stashing a bag underneath. Once he gets the room put back together, there’s a knock on the door. He’s relieved to know the man, but just when his back is turned, a shotgun blast sends him dead to the floor.
That opening sequence gives us everything we need to know—everyone has secrets, and no one can be trusted. The characters play their cards close to their chest and no one reveals their hands until they’re forced to. The film does the same.
The measured use of each character’s backstory and how it’s deployed is incredibly effective. The audience is kept guessing about who the characters really are until after they’ve made a surprising and irrevocable choice. Once they do, the audience is given a glimpse into their past which provides context about where they’ve been and where they’re going. Drew Goddard, the writer and director of the film, plants all the right seeds which germinate explosively onscreen.
Jeff Bridges gives a shining performance as Father Flynn, an ex-con masquerading as a priest who may or may not be suffering from the early stages of dementia, and Chris Hemsworth is perfectly cast as Billy Lee, a magnetic cult leader with a score to settle.
If there’s one thing this movie does best, its create complicated and compelling characters that will stick in your mind long after you’ve left the theater.
In the age of re-makes and endless franchise installments, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is an original and unique crime thriller that explores dark themes like the gravity of sin and forgiveness in a playful and entertaining way. It’s compelling, brutal, and one hell of a good time.