Movies like Bad Times at the El Royale are a dying breed. In a market dominated by superheroes and remakes, Drew Goddard’s noir thriller spins a layered yarn that’s highlighted by a snappy script and wonderful performances. Jeff Bridges has never been better as Father Flynn, a gentle priest with a surprising secret.
Bad Times grabs your attention right away with one of the best cold openings in recent memory. Turns out, a man named Felix O’Kelly (Nick Offerman) just pulled a job and is on the run. He rents a room at the El Royale, a bi-state establishment, where he hides a satchel full of cash beneath the floorboards. But he’s soon double-crossed, and the money is never found.
That’s just one of El Royale’s many dark secrets. The film picks up many years after the cold open, when a number of guests descend on the hotel. Now in a sorry state of disrepair, the El Royale makes for one hell of a set, with secret passageways, two-way mirrors, and a lone employee named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) on staff.
Bad Times unfolds in shorter vignettes, à la Pulp Fiction, giving each character the spotlight. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a disenchanted Motown singer; Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a so-called vacuum salesman who sounds not too dissimilar to Foghorn Leghorn; Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), an unfriendly hippie who arrives at the hotel like a bolt of lightning. Then there’s Miles, the El Royale’s shy and sweet-tempered concierge/bartender/housekeeper/handyman, in what is another one of the movie’s standout performances.
By focusing on each character individually, Goddard reveals some deep truths about them—and ourselves. These characters each have their own hopes and dreams; they struggle with faith and family; they live in a world where politics and war have affected their lives. The El Royale also serves as a character in its own right, with its untidy rooms and hidden corridors.
One thing that Goddard does well in Bad Times is let the audience soak in what’s going on, giving us a moment to analyze and process. It makes the movie more immersive and turns these characters into real people. The opening moments when Hamm’s character is peering at the different character through two-way mirrors is a clever way to reveal their secrets, without their being an information dump.
There are a few points when Bad Times tries to be too clever, and at 140 minutes long, the movie could do with a few edits. But its strong dialog and twisting narrative make it a standout in a year so obviously smitten by superheroes.
- Release Date: October 12, 2018
- Box Office: $32
- Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
- Director: Drew Goddard
- Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth