Bad Times at the El Royale

By Ray Kaiser
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Rating: 4.8/5

Bad Times at the El Royale is an absolute masterclass of filmmaking. There are lots of films that I enjoy in the moment, but don’t necessarily pass the “refrigerator test.” What I mean by that is, it does a great job of entertaining me in the moment, but by the time that night rolls around and I’m standing there looking into the open fridge looking for something to eat, little absent thoughts about things I didn’t like or things that didn’t make any sense will begin popping up in my head. Bad Times at the El Royale passed both of those tests with flying colors. Not only was it absolutely thrilling and engrossing in the theatre, but it left me thinking about how good it was for the next couple of late-night refrigerator visits.

Without giving anything away, because you want to go into this film knowing as little as possible, Bad Times at the El Royale is about seven people who show up at an old Reno hotel with a whole lot of baggage. As the eerie atmosphere of the hotel begins to reveal itself as something deeper, a considerable amount of hell breaks loose as each character tries to do what they came there for – be that unfinished business, or just trying to survive and get some goddamned sleep – all of them products of their fragile time in history.

There aren’t really heroes and villains, just people trying to do what’s right or get what they want. All of the performances were fantastic, even the chronic mumbling of Jeff Bridges was both a legible and fantastic character. A couple of other performances surprised me, including a couple of brief appearances of Nick Offerman and a disconcertingly American Chris Hemsworth. With the brilliant direction of Drew Goddard, everything from the characters to great set design on such a small budget creates a compelling version of slowly crumbling America in the late 1950s.

Bad Times champions the idea of “show don’t tell.” Information is presented very organically, and there isn’t a single moment in which a character has to give out some kind of exposition along with their dialogue. The film slowly gives you pieces of information, making sure to focus on them long enough for you to pick them up, but then trusts you to put them together yourself. When this is pulled off, and it’s pulled off masterfully, it is such a refreshing and exciting way of telling a story.

In that same vein, the way the first half of the story is told from multiple characters’ perspectives is very well-handled, and both weaves the characters’ stories together in interesting ways and very deftly makes sure you understand the chronological order of events despite their mixed presentation. I have to give credit to both the film’s editor, Lisa Lassek, and the cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, for making this element of the film work as well as it did.

I do think that the film slowed down a little bit after all of the characters’ stories converged and the film switched to a more linear storytelling, but that’s not to say the second half is bad because of it. It still contains the same marvelous filmmaking, and even did a really good job of subverting my expectations and predictions with its story beats. My only real criticism of the film is small, and ultimately, a nitpick: that being that the score in one of the latter scenes felt very off. For starters, specifically noticing a film’s score is a bad sign, because film scores always do their best work when they dissolve into the background of the scene. But this piece of music felt very heavy-handed and a little out of place with how it was trying to dictate how audience members should be feeling about the scene. This is not a bad thing on principle, but none of the other music in the film did this and it certainly stood out.

This film manages to be an intense thriller chockablock with good characters and a scathing historical look at America during one of it’s more shakey moments. The commentary is delivered mainly through the characters, and like the rest of its showing (rather than telling) it is done both very effectively and without taking you out of the moment. I will warn you, though, this film is not light in any sense of the word. It’s dark, it’s honest and it’s straight-up nasty when it comes to certain things.

This is particularly notable with the violence – it doesn’t gratuitously show anything, but it certainly isn’t shy with it either. If those sorts of things are nowhere near your alley, then I would maybe suggest you steer away from this one, or at least go into it with caution. Besides that, I absolutely suggest you go out to see this while it’s still in theatres. It made me laugh, it made my cry, it made me sit up in my seat when I was getting comfortable – hell, it even made me almost yell “Just dome him!” in a very sparsely-occupied cinema. At the very least, check this one out once it hits streaming services. It’ll most certainly be worth your time.

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