Film Review: Bad Times at the El Royale



Directed by Drew Goddard

Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Miles Miller


Drew Goddard, director of The Cabin in the Woods, exhibits his exceptional brilliance in his new movie Bad Times at the El Royale. The movie checks of all the marks for the 1950s-60s movie style. Even though the plot is a bit predictable at times, the intriguing cinematography creates a new world for the viewers. The movie is set in 1969 America and the movie starts with a 10-year flashback where a bank robber hides a bag of money in one of the rooms of the El Royale Hotel. The present storyline starts with four guests checking into the El Royale, which seems to have lost its extravagance. Despite its lack of spirit, it is still in the business with only one employee, who runs the entire hotel by himself (think Tim Roth in Four Rooms).

The first striking element is the cinematography – its abstractness of colour, chapter titles, and the sounds design, which are heavily influenced by Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and Alfred Hitchcock. The symmetric shots resemble the signature look of Wes Anderson and ties into the reproduction of 1960s post-war trauma. Espionage and trauma are the main themes that lead the puzzling plot which is unraveled slowly throughout the film. The 1960s elements are heightened when one of the guests, Sullivan (Jon Hamm), an FBI agent disguised as a salesman, discovers the hidden tunnel which provides access to the guests’ rooms with a one-way mirror. The rooms are quite significant for the characters because they symbolise privacy being threatened by authoritarian or manipulative force. It shows the consequences of the Cold War and the Vietnam war at the end of the 1960s.


While this espionage illustrates the 1960s post-war governmental plots, this is contrasted with the eccentric characters and unanticipated plot line. Hitchcock’s and Tarantino’s influence is visible in the abrupt outburst of action are used in the movie to create a shock effect on the viewer while it adds up to the puzzling plot. The characters rarely go out of the hotel – we only get flashbacks to previous events and characters like Mason-like cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Most of the male characters are in disguise trying to recover what they have lost. Priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a robber, Salesman Lararnie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is an FBI agent, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) is an ex-soldier and works for the owners of the hotel with a secret agenda. The only morally good character at this point is Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), who is an aspiring singer. All these sub-lots became confusing and lost during the process of assembling the pieces of a puzzle.

The twisted reality in the hotel is explained in the end when Billy Lee gathers everyone in the Hotel Lobby - he basically ties them to a chair - and that’s when the motives of the characters are revealed. It is clear that Goddard was inspired by film noir directors and their twisted plot of murder mysteries a la Hercule Poirot. This ambition doesn’t always hit the target, and the movie ends up being confusing at certain points. Although some parts could be taken out of the plot, other elements like the acting, cinematography, and witty screenplay elevate this movie from “inspired by film noir” to an effectively bizarre portrayal of the trauma of post-war America which never loses sight of its light side.

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Completed her BA in English Language and Culture with a Minor in Film Studies. Currently doing her MA in English Literature and Culture at the University of Groningen and working at the Groninger Archive. Interested in arthouse and independent films, Sherlock Holmes, medieval literature, poetry and gender studies.