Review: Bad Times at the El Royale
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman
Arriving with its fair share of hype, Bad Times at the El Royale Hotel is a noir film that delivers with style and substance.
The El Royale hotel itself is a kind of character. A once-infamous hotel that was briefly owned by Frank Sinatra, it was regarded in the 1960s as a place of scandal. At the time of the film, it is a far cry from its glory days, full of bugs and hidden money. In an atmosphere of constant distrust and misdirection, each character harbours secrets and pasts that they seemingly cannot escape. The idea of a location serving as a kind of hell-on-earth, a space where people are tortured by one another, is an old trope. The Silent Hill series stands out as a relatively recent example where this idea has been explored well. The El Royale hotel is one such place, where six characters’ lives intersect. Told in several discrete chapters, the film shifts between their points of view. The same central events reappear a few times, slowly revealing details that were previously omitted.
Looking for a room for the night, a priest named Daniel Flynn (Bridges), struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo), and vacuum cleaner salesman Seymore Sullivan (Hamm) check into the El Royale hotel. Situated on the border between California and Nevada, the hotel is a novelty that is largely held together by its one present employee. Before the end of the night, the place will be full of people who will impact on one another’s lives.
Bad Times at the El Royale is delivered by an ensemble cast that manages to further elevate the material. Jeff Bridges delivers what might arguably be the film’s best performance in his role as Flynn, a complex character with interesting motivations. Looking less like Thor and more like Dalton Castle, Chris Hemsworth plays Billy Lee, a charismatic cult leader. The role shows his depth as an actor to an extent that his previous work has not, as he disappears into it. Dakota Johnson similarly delivers as Emily Summerspring, a criminal trying to get her sister to get clear of the cult’s influence. Jon Hamm supports these roles well in his work as sleazy salesman Sullivan, but the character is somewhat underutilised in the wider scheme of El Royale’s story.
With interest recently sparking in the nature and popularity of cult groups, Bad Times at the El Royale taps into this theme. Billy Lee uses a mixture of charm and outright menace to capture lost people and uses his influence to get them to do horrible things.
Sin is another ongoing theme in Bad Times at the El Royale’s plot. Most of the characters are dogged by their pasts, with the constant question as to whether or not they deserve absolution (and, in the case of one character, if forgiveness is even possible).
Bad Times at the El Royale unfolds, with a slow burn plot that satisfactorily answers most questions. Viewers with a short attention span might find the pace a little slow in points. Despite this, it comes highly recommended for thriller fans.
Bad Times at the El Royale is rated MA and now available on DVD/Blu Ray and digital home release.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor