Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

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Will Campbell, Writer/Editor

Drew Goddard has done a lot of work in the film and TV business in his time, and all of it has been good. He wrote the first Cloverfield, along with The Martian, and directed The Cabin in the Woods. He’s worked across a vast variety of genres, but his take on the crime noir genre is the one that personally interests me the most.

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Bad Times at the El Royale is a strange mash-up between, as other reviewers have so succinctly put it, “Agatha Christie and Quentin Tarantino.” It is, in fact, almost a take on the style of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, placing seven strangers in a hotel, and giving most of them a secret to hide. Much like Hateful Eight, it has characters who have clashing personalities, and maybe even clashing interests.

The film was made on a budget of an estimated $32 million and failed to make that back, receiving only $31.4 million. Those who did go see it often viewed it positively, though some had problems with its length, at two hours and thirty minutes, while others found problems with its pacing. It currently sits at a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 7.2 on IMDb.

Despite the critics having problems with this film, I found it to be quite interesting. The setting itself, the El Royale hotel, is intriguing in that it’s a bi-state establishment, divided in half by a red line between California and Nevada. The hotel was home to numerous iconic figures of the 60s until it lost its gambling license. The hotel has begun to fall into obscurity after this and is woefully undermanaged.

The characters are very interesting, each having motivations and quirks that go beyond simple character traits. The way each character conflicts with one another keeps tensions high, and these conflicts help you to understand a character’s mindset.

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Being a crime noir means this film is steeped in a deeper mystery that the characters must unveil, and the movie’s pacing gives it out in perfectly-sized parts, bit by bit, never giving you too much at the start, and never giving you too much either.

The movie is divided into chapters, much like a Tarantino film, typically focused on the rooms of the hotel that each character is staying in. Sometimes, these chapters overlap each other, which makes it fun to have to discover how each of the chapters connects to one another.

The film’s score is also notable, with music holding a certain importance in the narrative, and none of it sounds foreign to the time period, which some films set in the past have problems with. Every song is a great one, some being very memorable, such as 26 Miles (Santa Catalina) by The Four Preps.

A real highlight of this film is some of the creative scenes, and the cinematography too. Though I don’t want to spoil the scenes for viewers, my personal favorite is one towards the very end where a character’s big secret is revealed and they get to become the hero for a few moments, saving the rest of the characters from a very bad situation.

Meanwhile, the cinematography produces some excellent shots, one of which was unfortunately spoiled in the trailers, with the El Royale looming over the head of Cynthia Erivo’s character, casting a very ominous red light in the night sky.

A lot of the critics who reviewed this movie claimed it had issues in terms of pacing, but I never found that to be true. One criticism I can understand is how the third act feels wildly different from the first two, but I think that’s alright since it allows for the introduction of the film’s wild card character, who brings a lot of personality to the table. However, it is very true that the third act is quite different in tone to the first two, and some viewers may find it discombobulating or might think it ruins the film.

One of this film’s other problems is its trailers, which spoiled a lot. Personally, I went into this film blind, knowing nothing about it beyond vague snippets I’d heard from the internet or from friends, and it made the experience all the better. If you plan on watching this film, I suggest you do the same, as it’ll make it a lot more fun, and makes the twists a lot harder to see coming.

Personally, despite its flaws, I think Bad Times at the El Royale is one of the best films of 2018, and I hope that this review might just help one or two people be convinced to check out this incredibly underrated film.