Bad Times at the El Royale is an extremely stylish film that has more than enough substance to fit the sizeable duration (141 minutes). The cast is a perfect fit and the writing, direction, and style as it is, all conspires to a film of near perfection.
The film’s greatest weakness is its sprawling backstories which paint the disparate histories of characters with no real reason to be together. It’s clear the intention is to speak to something universal, about, dare I say it, the human condition.
Beginning slow and ratcheting up the tension to a level that verges on a psychic assault on the audience, one cannot look away, however much they may wish to. The final act of the film is almost unbearable as this film slowly grips the audience and never slackens.
There is nothing off the table in this film where every risk feels dangerously real. The film makes the audience feel fury, grief, tension, and terror at its will. We as the audience have our emotional strings played masterfully.
This is a film that sits in my mind and dominates my thoughts. I am left thinking of all the chances characters had to take other actions and make their lives easier.
Everyone has a secret self, illustrated by the overt duality of the California-Nevada border bisecting the hotel. Each character’s façade is presented first before their true selves are revealed. We are invited to understand the fundamentally split nature of humanity and our capacity for kindness and cruelty. These capacities are shown in stark and brutal context at times.
The brutal events are complimented by moments of real human tenderness – without which this film may not be bearable. It digs deep and uncovers so much that few films can sit beside it as such great examples of character studies.
Humanity is under the microscope in this spectacle of a film. The style is obvious but the substance is what really affects the viewer.
It sets up an Agatha Christe-style situation and then eschews the tired narratives of a whodunnit in favour of a real assessment of how people act under pressure. Even the audience is under pressure and this film is guaranteed to elicit responses from you as a viewer that you are unlikely to expect – it certainly did me.
Go and see this film and be prepared for its unflinching portrayal of the evil of violence, the goodness of kindness, and the frailties of human beings.
This film and its characters will take up residency in your mind and will not be quick to leave. No actor does anything but soar in their role yet still the standouts are Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn, Lewis Pullman as Miles Miller (perhaps the story’s heart and soul), and Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet. Bridges and Erivo engage in some breathtaking scenes with Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, and Pullman’s performance in some scenes is enough to chill the blood and the break the heart of every viewer.
PS: It also features a couple of small performances by Parks and Recreation alumni which will be a small delight for fans of that show, just like it was for me!
Words by Liam McNally