In writer/director Drew Goddard’s 2018 film, an eclectic group of strangers – including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm) and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) – all check in to the infamous El Royale hotel, an establishment on the border between California and Nevada, all looked over by a single troubled maintenance man (Lewis Pullman), and as the night goes on, it quickly becomes clear that not everybody is who they appear to be and all cross paths in a plot filled with kidnapping, blackmail, murder and a bag full of money hidden under the floorboards.
El Royale gets off to a very promising start as we see the small group of characters arrive at the hotel and the intriguing mystery begins – we’re eager to discover just who everyone really is, what their business at the hotel is and just where everybody else in the hotel has gone. The opening half hour or so calls to mind The Hateful Eight, another dread filled mystery about a group of strangers in a single location, and the subsequent splitting of the film into chapters, looking at each character’s actual identities, slowly filling in the blanks of the story, is very Tarantinoesque and we begin to see that it’s this kind of epic mystery tale that Drew Goddard hopes to emulate.
Unfortunately, Goddard doesn’t have the same natural skill with this kind of story that Tarantino has and the film ultimately suffers because of a far too generous runtime and a story that often gets clunky and unfocused.
The runtime proves to be the film’s biggest problem because at a certain point, it becomes clear that El Royale would’ve worked far better as a 90 minute feature, a more compact and streamlined feature, but in this case Goddard’s ambition seems to have gotten the better of him and we’re left with a film that runs for an unreasonable 140 minutes, which results in a sluggish, mishandled pace and some “filler” in many scenes. He also doesn’t use the “flashbacks” quite as well as someone like Tarantino would and the gradual feeding of information to the audience feels a little off.
As mentioned before, the story of El Royale gets off to a great start, promising an intriguing noir mystery and reaching a high point when we discover the big secret that lies behind the guests’ mirrors, but during its unnecessarily protracted runtime, Goddard lets the plot run away from him and he insists on repeatedly adding brand new plot elements all the time, opting for twists upon twists without taking time to suitably solve the other story elements. As I say, with a 90 minute runtime it could’ve been something special but due to its length, the story ends up trailing off and becoming a tad too convoluted. Plus, the novel idea of the hotel occupying two states ultimately amounts to naught.
There’s a good cast assembled here and they all appear to have fun with the material. In something of a leading role, Jeff Bridges initially appears as a friendly, gentlemanly chap while also managing to subtly suggest ulterior motives with a shifty change of facial expression and he also delivers on some of the more emotional moments and elsewhere, Cynthia Erivo is good as the only real innocent in the piece, Jon Hamm enjoys playing the parts of both over-the-top chatterbox southern salesman and diligent law enforcer, Dakota Johnson is quietly dangerous, though perhaps slightly miscast, as the unpredictable Emily, Lewis Pullman is an effective bundle of nerves as the haunted, heroin-using Miles, and Chris Hemsworth gets to do sonething miles away from Thor in the role of the creepy, twisted cult leader Billy Lee.
There’s also the young Cailee Spaeny who plays Emily’s younger sister and . . . well let’s just say that if they ever do a remake of The Exorcist, she’d be ideal as Regan. She just looks so creepy!
Bad Times at the El Royale is very nicely designed (just look at the poster!) and the central “staging area” of the hotel lobby, split into two halves due to the two states it occupies, appears well designed and because of the building’s isolation and lack of other staff, there’s a certain Shining style creepiness going on – creating the feeling that danger could be lurking around the next corner, in the shadows. In true pulp novel style, the torrential rain is used effectively to create a noirish feel, Michael Giachinno’s score works well, and the film also has a great Motown/soul soundtrack.