Apriest, a singer and a vacuum salesman walk into a hotel … What sounds like the beginning of a good joke is the basis for writer-director Drew Goddard’s newest work, “Bad Times at the El Royale” (2018), set in 1969. Goddard (“Daredevil”) channels his inner Quentin Tarantino with a layered mystery of murder and deceit, dripping with style and intrigue. The El Royale hotel, which lies on the state line of California and Nevada, clearly has a history, and it’s almost a character itself.
The film is unraveled layer by layer as we see each character’s perspective of the night (and sometimes a bit of their previous life), allowing us to understand who they are and how they ended up at the El Royale on this fateful night. Each character has a secret or something to hide, and the twist of fate that brought them together might not be what they expected.
The film is helped immensely by its cast. John Hamm, Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson really bring their characters to life. “Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth is also a standout, once again embracing his comedic side as a larger-than-life cult leader who seems to have forgotten to button his shirt. Each one of these characters is well thought-out and could easily carry a movie on their own.
When “Bad Times at the El Royale” is good, it’s really good. However, it’s not always good. At nearly 2.5 hours, it feels long. Really long. The film almost lost me in a few places as it slows to a crawl, dwelling in its style.
But when Hemsworth finally hits the screen in the final act, the film finds its pacing and finishes strong. When all is said and done, I enjoyed my time with “El Royale,” but it is far from perfect. Had the pacing been a bit quicker, or the film been a bit creepier or smarter, we could be talking about a huge hit. Instead, we have an above-average imitation of a Tarantino film, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.