Okay, so last night I saw Bad Times at the El Royale. I was really excited for this movie. The trailers had completely sold me. Loved the vibe, the aesthetic, the actors, it just had me hooked. So as soon as it came out I made sure I had a ticket and I saw it Friday night. And it sounds like this is all building up into me being horribly disappointed - which is not how I feel. I enjoyed the film a lot. However, I am who I am, so I still had a lot of criticism for it. The most concise statement I can boil it down to is that it is a good movie that falls just short of being a great movie. So if all you needed to know was whether or not this movie is worth seeing, yes. I believe it is. That said, there’s a lot more to say, and a lot to unpack, so I’m going to first discuss some general thoughts without spoilers and then jump into a full on spoiler discussion with my thoughts on the film. I will warn safely before I get there as to not ruin anything for anyone who still has yet to see the film.
First off, if you are here to get a bit of an insight on the movie before either deciding if you are going to see it at all, or if you’re here to just see what I thought before seeing it, I’ll say this - if you have not seen a trailer for this movie, do not watch one. There are a lot of moments that appear in the trailer that are spoilers for the movie, to the point where if I had not known about those moments I almost certainly would have had a very different experience. The trailer doesn’t misrepresent the movie in any way, it just tells you more than you should know going into a movie labeled as a mystery.
Overall, it's a fun ride. The movie suffers from a problem where if you look at it closely to analyze the characters, story, themes, motifs, etc, you’ll also realize how many things fall apart. So it’s difficult if you want to get more out of it than just a viewing of an enjoyable movie, because there are certainly layers to it that Drew Goddard wrote into the film. It’s just that parts of what gets put in front of you are so heavy handed and other parts are so obfuscated for no clear reason that it becomes hard to distinguish between what you do and don’t want to care about (and what you should). The film sets up several things that either don’t really pay off at all, don’t pay off in a way that’s completely satisfying, or feel like their entire existence was written in to create a brief character moment. I’m well aware that all things should be written into a story with a purpose, but it shouldn’t be jarring that it was written in and strung along for two and a half hours only for one small and not altogether particularly impactful moment.
I’ve been pretty negative so far, and I don’t want to be just harsh on this movie because this movie is honestly good, and you really can look past most of those things. Most people wouldn’t even notice or care about those things, they are a little bit nitpicky. So when I say there are these things that are set up and don’t pay off in a satisfying way, that’s not everything. There are still a multitude of plotlines and small threads that pay off wonderfully, and I thought were incredibly enjoyable to watch. And those are really the big ones. There are minor things that bothered me that didn’t quite live up to my expectations but the larger aspects of the story end well. And that satisfying feeling rests heavily on the shoulders of the cast. All the performances really shine, and I was completely sold on every character. And this is a specific distinction I want to make. Because I think that without the strong performances, the writing on its own doesn’t really sell every character very well. In particular, Chris Hemsworth is a spectacularly charming and at the same time terrifying villain, and I want to see way more of these kinds of roles from him. Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm are great in everything, and after having suffered through all of the Fifty Shades movies, Dakota Johnson was shockingly good in her role. Lewis Pullman and Christine Erivo, who I haven’t seen in anything before, both did incredible jobs, particularly Pullman, whose character had far more depth than I expected him to. Also, as a quick aside, it seems odd that Nick Offerman is in this movie but you can barely even tell its him because he has almost no lines, barely even appears and when he does his face is covered or he’s 10 feet away from the camera and you can almost not tell that it’s him. Not complaining about a Nick Offerman cameo though. Anyway, it's just a blast to watch all of the characters interact with each other.
The movie has a great aesthetic and setting, a fantastically fun soundtrack, a great ride of a story, and great characters played by great actors and actresses. It isn’t without its plot holes and missteps, but don’t go in expecting a true spiritual successor to Pulp Fiction. Go in expecting a fun movie with a fun setting and fun characters, and have fun. Enjoy charming cult leader Billy Lee, down on her luck singer Darlene Sweet, and Nick Offerman, whose character’s name was not explicitly stated. I’m not gonna give it a number rating, because movies are more than a number between one and ten, more than an increment of stars between one and four.
Also, a side note at the end of this non-spoiler portion of my post so everyone can see this - I have about 35 movies in my library right now that I'd like to watch in the near future, just because I love movies and want to watch more. Some I've seen, some I haven't seen. I'd be excited to talk about any and all of them, so hopefully I'll be writing more frequent posts on here, and potentially making some video content as well. I'd love to do some video stuff but I'm not too experienced with it - I figured starting with just doing what I know and writing would be a good place to start. We'll see where things go from here.
SPOILERS AHEAD - STOP HERE TO AVOID SPECIFIC PLOT POINTS
To be honest, at this point, I feel like I’ve managed to really pin down how I felt about this film without spoiling it at all, but I might as well get into some specifics for those who have seen the movie. First off, trailer moments that should not have been trailer moments - Broadbeck (Jon Hamm) discovering the mirrors, and Flynn (Jeff Bridges) revealing he isn’t really a priest. You can sort of figure out yourself early on that Flynn isn’t quite what he seems to be, but that mystique is lost knowing that later he will say “I’m not really a priest.” On the other side, the discovering of the mirrors was such a perfectly toned and written scene. And without the knowledge that the El Royale functions this way, it’s much more haunting and bizarre than it is when you watch the movie knowing the patrons are being watched (I can only assume). That said, that scene is still so incredibly crafted, with Darlene singing as we watch Broadbeck discover there’s more to the priest and the hippie than meets the eye. This scene is so good that a majority of the rest of the movie fails to live up to it. And I think that’s my biggest issue with the film as a whole, is that the tone is inconsistent, and it nails the tone of that scene more that it feels strange when it abandons that tone and vibe.
Mainly, I think the way the story was constructed a whole just felt disjointed. It definitely gives a bit of a Nolan/Tarantino shifting timeline vibe, but Nolan and Tarantino pull that concept off. This movie falls a little short of being successful at it. I think what makes other films feel less disjointed is that the timing feels deliberate. This movie jumps around putting us in different places, at varying increments. A movie like Memento is very consistent in how often it jumps back in time again. This movie will have a 20 minute scene, then a 10 minute scene, then a 5 minute scene, then an entire hour of scenes, then another flashback, it goes on. It just feels random, which is jarring. And while many of the flashbacks were sensible, some felt just there to explain things, rather than have the characters show them or explain them when it made more sense in dialogue. It was cleverly disguised exposition. For instance, we’re at the very end of the film, a character is minutes away from dying, and since we’ve had no explanation of who is so far, the movie needs to insert a scene of him in Vietnam to explain that he killed 123 people in combat (and he’s a sharpshooter). There’s no trickle throughout the story where he uses his skills to hint at his backstory. It’s just given to us when we need to know it so that the next scene can happen. Billy Lee, Emily and Ruth’s story was sprinkled throughout, always relevant, and never felt forced. It explained who the characters were and why and how they had reached this point. Miles just existed for two hours and then suddenly became a sharpshooter veteran. Granted, he was wracked with guilt the whole movie and desperately wanted to confess his sins to the Father, which I liked. But that was all we got. There weren’t any more layers to his guilt. It was guilt for two hours and then a very fast payoff. I still loved his storyline, but it could have been so much stronger.
Jon Hamm played a fantastic character, and I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, but he had the opposite problem of Miles. They try to show us the story of Sullivan/Broadbeck, but instead I left the movie still confused as to why he was there in the first place. I think that thinking about it, I can kind of piece it together, but it’s still not super clear. And just when you start becoming invested in his character, he dies. Which is fine, but I didn’t get enough of what else was going on with him. Thinking about it now, what was the purpose of his phone conversation with his daughter? His storyline would have been the same without that conversation. Continuing with the ‘surveillance/agent’ line of thought, the entire purpose of the hotel, who management is, why high profile people use this hotel for sex, etc, is never fully explained. Which I could forgive if it wasn’t such a central plot point with the valuable sex tape as a macguffin.
All said and done, most of this is nitpicking. It's no more flawed than many other movies that I enjoy perfectly fine. If nothing else, I’m just sad, because I see so much potential in so many places here, but it just doesn’t quite reach that potential. I think a tighter story presented a little more cleanly, coupled with a stronger display of consistent tone could make this a really special movie. But like I said before, it’s still fun. Chris Hemsworth is a delight, the story is still fun despite its flaws, and I like what Drew Goddard was going for under the surface (at least what I believed he was going for).