The similarities between Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale and the works of Quentin Tarantino, as alleged by other reviewers, are superficial at best. Yes, it is told in “chapters,” marked by title cards. Yes, it bops around, forward and backward in time, to watch a previous scene with a new perspective. And yes, it is certainly violent, though nowhere near the boatloads of blood employed by Mr. Tarantino. But this is, without a doubt, Goddard’s baby, and has more in common with his meta-horror opus The Cabin in the Woods than anything else. Like the Cabin, the El Royale itself is as much of a character as any of the humans within it. And like that film, the neo-noir Bad Times is a twisty puzzle box of a story, where nothing and no one we see is quite as they seem.
The less you know about Bad Times going in, the better. All you need to know is that it’s 1969, and a struggling singer (Cynthia Erivo), a priest experiencing the early stages of dementia (Jeff Bridges), a surly flower child (Dakota Johnson), and a loud-mouthed Southern door-to-door salesman (Jon Hamm) all check into the very vacant El Royale, a motel that straddles the California-Nevada border and boasts a glitzy, celebrity-laden history. Oh, and there’s also a Manson-esque cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).
Set design is magnificent here, as the El Royale is gorgeous to behold; it is a very convincing time capsule, evoking the formative years of Las Vegas, the Rat Pack, and Marilyn Monroe. Since the bulk of the action occurs in this one location, it’s easy to imagine Bad Times one day being adapted into a stage play. That’s a testament to not only the motel’s personality but also to its utility as a canvas for some really rich character studies as well as some nifty performances, especially by Bridges and stage veteran Erivo.
Bad Times excels as a well-paced mystery, as it meticulously ratchets tension and keeps the viewer guessing. The patient camera work and attentive staging are reminiscent of the style of composition and editing that Hitchcock used to spectacular effect in Psycho and Rear Window. Long cuts may not be your thing, but they serve a purpose here, and they kept me riveted. The story unfolds like a champion-level chess match. I found myself in a constant state of anticipation, wondering what would, or could, happen next, and that’s probably the best compliment I can pay the movie. It’s unpredictable and yet logical (as opposed to too many genre films which manage to be both predictable and illogical).
Ultimately Bad Times at the El Royale is a confident, elegant love letter to the pulpy noir mysteries which were a highlight of 1960s cinema. It rewards the patient and attentive with constant twists, an opulent setting, and on-their-game ensemble. A good time, indeed.