Film review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Trailers are getting worse. Mostly too long, they show, depending on the genre, the best parts of the film, are cut to seemingly always the same music in the same way and do not shy away from massive spoilers. A trailer fan like me is happy when something really fresh comes along, like the trailer for “Bad Times at the El Royale”. If the film can also keep what the preview promises, then we have a happy critic and a film worth seeing at the start.


On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, sometime around the year 1970, careworn singer Darlene arrives at El Royale, a once famous but now somewhat run-down hotel located right on the border between California and Nevada. In the lobby she meets the elderly Father Flynn and the unappealing vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Sullivan, who are already impatiently waiting for the untraceable page boy. When Miles, as his name suggests, finally appears to give the new guests their room keys, another guest arrives. The obviously nervous and more than just unfriendly Emily.

It quickly becomes clear that nothing is as it seems to be here and everyone here has something to hide, even the hotel itself. Sullivan, who certainly doesn’t sell vacuum cleaners, is the first to stumble across the disturbing events here and set in motion a sequence of events that nobody could have foreseen. A stormy and highly explosive night outside and inside awaits the guests of El Royale. One whose morning to experience quickly becomes the sole goal.

© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox


seven people, one hotel, one night. This is, in very short words, the setup to Bad Times at the El Royale. This is basically a chamber piece, and anyone who feels reminded of The Hateful Eight is already thinking in the right direction. Here and there, the actual events are interrupted again and again by flashbacks or recordings in order to provide the viewer with more and more background information bit by bit. Moreover, the events of the night do not always take place chronologically, or things happen synchronously and we see them from different perspectives.

A strong script is the most important prerequisite for a film of this kind to work. On the one hand, the plot must be compelling enough to compensate for the spatial limitation and the lack of more or new characters. Moreover, these characters have to be credible and act comprehensibly, otherwise the Story Card House will collapse. And finally, one must know exactly where and how often one interrupts the current action, otherwise one runs the risk of interrupting the suspense arc or confusing or overtaxing the audience. The only flaw here is the runtime, because even though the movie is entertaining from start to finish, one or two minutes would have done it less good.

© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox

At this point Drew Goddard, who is also responsible for the script as well as the direction, proves that his first work The Cabin in the Woods (which he wrote together with Joss Whedon) was no coincidence. The man has a good knack for getting his audience firmly under control, for leading them astray again and again and at the same time giving them information to keep them invested. The fact that the tension curve is becoming more and more tense slowly but incessantly during this time only becomes apparent when the ankles in the hands begin to hurt from the fixed claws.

An interesting setting and its presentation is also important for such a chamber play. The El Royale and the era in which history takes place are made for it. Vietnam war, hippies, secret services everywhere, plus a once famous hotel visited by all sorts of big names from politics and show business, which is now almost empty, but still in operation for unknown reasons. This setup alone conveys an aura of secrets, conspiracies and crimes before the plot really gets going.

And then of course there’s the cast. With such a small ensemble the actors don’t just have to present their roles credibly, they also carry the plot and thus the whole film, because something else or “more” doesn’t follow. Here is a Jeff Bridges as Father Flynn, once again shining in top form. Although it quickly became clear that the parish priest had little holiness in him, he had all sympathies on his side from the very first moment. Jon Hamm more or less repeats his parade role from Mad Men, but this fits perfectly here. The rest of the manageable cast is also convincing in full length, whereby Dakota Johnson should still be mentioned, who after the 50 Shades series nobody would have believed to have any acting talent. And of course a compliment to Chris Hemsworth, who leans far out of his superhero comfort zone with this role.

© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox

Which would have brought us to the craft part. And this is exactly where Goddard puts the crown on his already absolutely successful chamber thriller. The fabulous set and costume design are just the beginning. The brightly colored images captured in wonderfully varied camera work and in keeping with the times offer a slanted contrast to the more than just gloomy plot. Unusual but effective settings, overlong shots and hard cuts give the handle to each other and integrate the many flashbacks that interrupt the actual events seamlessly and homogeneously into the overall work. A compliment to the editor, too. Special effects are more limited to masks and some small stunts, but are convincing in full length.

Soundtrack and Sounddesign also deserve great praise. The former captures the time and above all the changes of the time in which Bad Times plays, quite excellently, in which he relies on throughout well-known, but musically immensely different popular songs. This is a wonderful illustration of the gap between generations, which has never been as deep as it was in the United States. In addition, the long settings with superb sound design are used to heat up the already disastrous mood.

© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox

as a result

Bad Times at the El Royale is an exciting and brutal thriller in the style of a chamber play. Even though not all the twists are really surprising and the film may be a tick too long, we still have to deal with a gripping and unusually constructed piece of cinema in which there is so much audiovisual creativity as one would never have expected from a modern Hollywood production. In addition, there is a cast who, with ease and joy, does the not easy task of carrying the whole plot and a director who has proven that his debut was not a stroke of luck and that you can continue to be curious about his work, even if he was clearly inspired by Tarantino’s stylistic means.