Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Six years have passed since Drew Goddard’s incredibly entertaining first directorial effort The Cabin in the Woods was released in theaters. Although he has kept busy in those years, producing shows like The Good Place and Netflix’s Daredevil, as well as earning an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Ridley Scott’s The Martian, fans of his first film have been highly anticipating his return to the director’s chair. That return is now here in the form of Bad Times at the El Royale, a Tarantino-esque thriller set in a mysterious motel.
Much like Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Bad Times takes place almost entirely within a single location as seven mysterious travelers with questionable intentions encounter each other in the titular motel. Formerly a trendy vacation spot on the border of Nevada and California that hosted dignitaries and celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, it is now a worn-down curiosity run by a single heroin addict. It is soon discovered by the visitors on this fateful night to have also been a place where these dignitaries and celebrities were secretly recorded for blackmail purposes.
To explain any more of the plot would be a disservice to the movie. Needless to say, with the exception of the purest character and the most evil character, none of the characters we meet on this fateful night are who they initially appear to be. They each have a reason for being there and in most cases, their reasons conflict with those of the others, which creates for the “bad times” of the title.
Although it never quite reaches the entertainment heights of The Cabin in the Woods and lacks the wit and punch of the Tarantino movies that it emulates, Bad Times at the El Royale is a lot of fun and rarely seems to drag on despite its lengthy 141 minute runtime. Each member of the incredibly talented cast—including Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, John Hamm, and Chris Hemsworth—came ready to play it all the way to the back row. The downside to this being such a talented ensemble in a movie that will surely be marked by a death or two is that there are some characters that we don’t get to spend as much time with as we might have liked.
The movie is visually stunning. The hotel is inspired by the Cal-Neva Lodge, a resort and casino on the shores of Lake Tahoe that in 1960 was purchased by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and the interior of the El Royale does look like something straight off the set of a Rat Pack movie. From the jukebox to the what-must-have-looked-futuristic-in-the-1950s vending system to the wild animal-filled diorama, the motel interior could be the setting for anything from a sock hop to a horror movie. And Goddard uses the camera in an interesting way, framing the characters in unique positions, emphasizing the unusual terror of their surroundings.
As fun as Bad Times as the El Royale is throughout, it still feels like there is something missing in the movie’s final act. There are plenty of plot twists in the film total, but it ultimately feels one big twist short of being complete. Perhaps that is because there are various plot threads the movie develops, but then leaves hanging; like who is the mysterious “management” to whom the hotel clerk constantly refers? This is especially noticeable by those who have seen The Cabin in the Woods, because the mysterious “management” pulling the strings in that film had a particular and important meaning to the movie’s conclusion, but we never get that here. There is a character reveal that comes late in the game which feels like it could be that twist the movie needs, but that reveal turns out to be more of a means to an end than anything legitimately interesting.
The final act of the film ultimately suffers by straying from the set up of twisted strangers meeting in an empty motel and turning into a more standard hostage drama, especially since the character that turns out to be the big bad lacks the level of buildup he probably deserved. But there are few movies that get everything right in their final acts and Bad Times at the El Royale gets most things right along the way, making it a location worth checking into.
Bad Times at the El Royale opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.