Bad Times at the El Royale is a haunted carnival ride that speeds with excitement in the beginning, slows down in the middle, yet doesn’t disappoint in the end. With its quirkiness, mystery, and thrill, it’s like Wes Anderson, Agatha Christie, and Quentin Tarantino mingled and produced a brilliant problem child.
The movie takes place in the 1960s and starts with a cameo from Nick Offerman entering a hotel room and hiding a stash of money. Fast forward ten years, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) enter the El Royale and meet salesman Laramie (Jon Hamm).
With a '50s diner aesthetic, El Royale lies on the border of Nevada and California and features rooms specifically styled for each state. We know something’s up when bellboy Miles nearly has a panic attack when he sees Father Flynn and tries to persuade him to try out other hotels. The El Royale is not what it seems. The impatient Emily (Dakota Johnson) enters, and the characters go their separate ways. Lamarie starts finding listening devices all over his room, Darlene begins to sing an eerie, yet melodious song, Father Flynn extracts the floor, and Emily drags in her sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny), a devout follower of cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Cue the start of the “bad times.”
Organized to focus on one character at a time, the movie provides a substantial amount of background to each character and depicts their development with care. Each character, on the surface, seems comparable to a character archetype of the 1960s, whether it’s a hippie, a soldier, a soul singer, or a member of a Manson family–like cult, but as they develop throughout the film, layers of their personality reveal that are more than just a set of simplified characteristics. The complexity of each character makes the film an interesting take on morality and society.
Written, produced, and directed by Drew Goddard, the film resonates with the cleverness of his other works, such as The Martian, World War Z, and The Good Place. Just when you think you’ve figured out what’s going to happen next, Goddard twists the plot and keeps you at the edge of your seat. Multiple times, I fell victim to jumpscares, and the film successfully tugged my heartstrings, as I desperately wished the best for certain characters. However, the movie’s pace is uneven throughout its long length of almost two and a half hours, and by the halfway point, my sense of excitement started to fluctuate.
Expect acting that’s no less than superb from each member of the star-studded cast. Bridges effectively portrays Father Flynn as a determined, yet pitiful aging man with one last duty to fulfill. Hemsworth’s ridiculous portrayal of Billy Lee has him shimmying shirtless and spouting nonsensical speeches, providing the film with a psychotic undertone. However, the scene stealer—the soul of the movie—has to be newcomer Cynthia Erivo, who had previously starred in and won a Tony Award for the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. Erivo’s Darlene Sweet is not the typical sweet singer; she is a ferocious heroine. Disillusioned by the controlling men in her life, she perseveres, unwaveringly, and sings her truths in spectacular musical numbers.
When the movie ended, a fellow film enthusiast and I sat through the credits, listening to Erivo sing her last song. This film is not your typical murder mystery; it’s an intense reflection on society, a revisit to the not–so “good ole days” of the '60s, and an homage to the timeless cult classics. Inventive, delicate, and inquisitive, Bad Times at the El Royale delivers a good time at the movie theatre.