The 90s revival is in full effect almost everywhere you look at the moment and Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale looks and plays like a film that would fit comfortably into that era. The writer-director has mostly been penning scripts for TV and films like The Martian and World War Z since making his directorial mark with Cabin in the Woods, and this throwback neo-noir is a solid return that places a heavy emphasis on style over substance.
While the film isn’t one to last long in the memory it is very pleasing on the eye and being shot on 35mm by DoP Seamus McGarvey helps to capture the late-60s period detail. The border separating Nevada and California runs right through the centre of the El Royale Hotel, a place that in 1969 is now way past its sell-by date. Despite being staffed by a lone concierge called Miles (Lewis Pullman) it still has its uses, not all of which are exactly above board.
Arriving at the hotel we meet talkative vacuum salesman Seymour (Jon Hamm), Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest on the way to meet his brother, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a struggling R&B singer with a heck of a voice and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a mysterious woman in no mood to hang around and talk. As they settle into their rooms we discover each guest has their own secret reason for being there and whether they make it through the night alive might not be in their hands at all.
The plot description can’t go any further beyond that point because there are a number of twists and turns revealed within these interlocking stories. Goddard moves across the timeline a number of occasions filling in the blank spaces of his characters' backgrounds to underpin the motivation of their present day actions. He also does the same within the structure of the El Royale to show the same parts of the story from different perspectives, but this mostly serves to drain out the tension and slow down the pace.
There are obvious comparisons to be made with Tarantino due to the bringing together of this disparate group of characters under one roof. The graphic violence is there in part – although the gaps in-between seem long and drawn out – but the script has nowhere near the same sort of sharp-tongued wit. Goddard’s film never manages to justify its 140 minute run time with all the work that goes into setting up a rather tame conclusion feeling inconsequential.
Goddard has pulled together quite the cast for the film but it is newcomer Cynthia Erivo’s magnetic performance that really stands out. Erivo is also due to appear in Steve McQueen’s Widows and she looks completely comfortable alongside her far more experienced cast members. Bridges is as reliable as ever, while Hamm and Johnson also do well enough with their roles. Pullman isn’t too far behind Erivo in terms of presence but the late appearance of Chris Hemsworth as a loose cannon cult leader lacks the crazy edginess needed for the role.
The production design is another star of the show with great attention to detail paid to the fixtures and fittings and the faded architecture of the kitschy interiors. There is nice use of lighting and stylistic touches from Goddard to cut between time periods with characters seen holding the same pose to create a smooth transition. The soundtrack is also pretty good, reeling off a number of 50s and 60s jukebox hits (Erivo is given plenty of room to show off her vocal range) to further add to the retro ambience. Even with all the double crossing, murder, sleaze and religious overtones you won’t necessarily have a bad time at the El Royale, but you probably won’t have a night to remember either.
Bad Times at the El Royale opens nationwide on October 12th.