Written by Wayne Townsend
I will not discuss the plot points of this film, because there were so many characters reveals addressing one would require me to explain another, thus ruining the movie-going experience. Instead, I’ll discuss structure and design.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a throwback film in the style of Film Noir, modernized for today’s audience. While respect is earned by the filmmakers paying tribute to an underappreciated movie sub-genre (film Noir has historically been tabbed as ‘B’ films, along with horror), today’s directors seem to have a need to reinvent storytelling by using new techniques developed since the introduction of these films in the 1940’s, such as CGI, quirky camera angles, and even color. Apologies, but some stories/movies would just work better in black and white. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a film. Neon signage is part of the backdrop of the story, but director Drew Goddard’s use of shadows to create the mood and in some cases, character juxtaposition, he shows an acute understanding of the difference. He could be forgiven, but I won’t. Goddard has won awards for his writing, The Hugo Award for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and the Writers Guild Award for Lost. He is the creator of the Netflix series Daredevil and wrote the screenplay for the Matt Damon flick, The Martian. He co-wrote and directed The Cabin in the Woods, so yeah, he’s good.
The movie is set in1968 at a hotel where the state line between California and Nevada is drawn straight down the middle. The characters who populate the titular hotel are thrown together through the happenstance that we call life, motivated by attempts to change the trajectory of their respective lives. A priest, a singer, an escape cultist, and the hotel manager, who is tasked with filming and recording the occupants of the honeymoon suite for what can only be described as blackmail fodder. Much like the movies and TV shows mentioned above, most particularly Lost, the story is non-linear and from the POV of each character. This is done to create a crescendo of tension for each character which comes together in the climax of the film. All the characters are trying to escape something horrible that has happened to them, and struggle with the moral dilemma of choosing a course of action, and just how much ethical leeway their choices give them. This is where the movie excels. Nearly every decision a character can make would negatively impact the others. The struggle to decide whether to do the right thing or whatever is most expedient distress the thought process of each character until time runs out and individual choices are made for them. I found myself changing allegiances from one character to other several times. At one time or another, I rooted for all but one, knowing if they came out on top, the others would suffer. I liked that part, it shows care in the devolvement of the characters. But in doing so through flashback reveals, and with the slow pacing, getting a complete picture is difficult. Either show me enough to get it or leave things out and let me fill in the blanks. We’ve all seen movies that do one or the other. Film noir is at its best during a stormy night with shady strangers and no clear plot other than to survive the conflict introduced. After Hours, by Martin Scorsese is an excellent example of this. Goddard created a bigger plot hole in his attempt to fill in what is by nature a genre designed to have them. For this, he loses points. Bad Times at the El Royale was a decent effort to make a film in my favorite genre, with great performances by all, but it failed to resonate because in the end the focus shifted from the ensemble to one character, thus changing the narrative to the more conventional Hollywood
thriller. Because the movie season is picking up with what seems to be more diverse movie choices, you could wait for Redbox. 3 out of 5.