If there is one thing you all should know about me, it's that I am a sucker for Neo-noir mystery movies. Flicks like Se7en, Mulholland Drive and Memento play a big part in not only my love for movies, but the experience of viewing them. These movies are not only memorable the first time around, but can become something entirely different upon subsequent viewings. When I first got a whiff of Bad Times at the El Royale, I had a feeling that we may be adding another one to that list.
Written and Directed by Drew Goddard, the patriarch of the Netflix series Daredevil among a boatload of other cool stuff, Bad Times takes place in the early 1970's at the El Royale, a hotel that is split down the middle by the border of California and Nevada. Once a hotspot for many familiar faces and notable figures, the El Royale has fallen on hard times and hardly sees any business.
On this day however, the El Royale is quite lively as four patrons have arrived. Among them a singer, a hippie, a vacuum salesman and a priest and all of them seem to be hiding something. As the story unfolds we discover more secrets about each of them, why they have arrived at the El Royale and what secrets the hotel has of it's own.
The most crucial part of any mystery movie is, well.....the mystery. For the majority of the movie the mystery is serviced well. It is only when we reach the third act that the mystery seems to be sucked out almost completely, but we will get to that later. The secrets that the El Royale and it's occupants hold are dispersed nicely and Goddard did a nice job of having just enough pealed away in each scene to keep the viewer interested.
Goddard uses a broken narrative to achieve this, another cornerstone of Mystery movies. Where some movies that go non-linear can get confusing, Bad Times never really tries to throw you for too much of a loop. This can be a positive or a negative depending on how much you want to unwrinkle your brain after a movie. To be honest I think writers and directors can get too caught up with trying to fool the audience and forget to tell a compelling story around it, something that thankfully Goddard avoids.
Helping Goddard to unfold the mystery is a killer cast that is as varied as it is prestigious.The big hitters include Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson, the first two need no introduction but the latter may need some explaining. Johnson is most known for her work in the 50 Shades of Gray series and has not gotten the best feedback for that turn. Johnson has decided to make 2018 her turn around year, with a strong and honestly unexpected role here and the lead in one of my most anticipated movies of the year, Luca Guadagnino's Suspuria remake.
Rounding out the main cast are Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman, both of whom I did not know before viewing. As it turns out, Erivo recently starred in the revival of The Color Purple on Broadway, taking home a Tony award for her performance and Pullman popped up in The Battle of the Sexes as Bobby Riggs's son. While I did not recognize them during viewing I will be remembering them both for their strong performances here.
Goddard also directed Bad Times and he also does a pretty good job on that front. Direction is the hardest part of a movie to judge because of how varied the job can be. An easy way for me to tell the merit of a director is how focused the movie is on telling it's story and how it is told. Goddard has this locked down, but like many before him, the third act will be what hurts Goddard's work the most.
I won't get into any spoilers here, but certain events take place that sort of thrown the whole tone of the movie in a different direction and bring an already slow paced narrative to a screeching halt. For the majority of the movie I don't mind the slower pace. As I said before information is revealed at a steady pace and keeps the viewer intrigued but gives us enough time to examine each beat.
The meat of that third act feels as long as the whole of the rest of the movie and at a certain point the wheels start spinning. For a movie that was so smart with pacing and focus for so long, it is a real shame to see it somewhat spoiled. It makes the already lengthy run time feel that much longer and someone with Drew Goddard's talent and know how, should know better.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a more than competent genre movie and really to expect much more is to misunderstand the intention behind it. Feet are planted firmly in both the Noir and Mystery camps, as if it were split down the middle similar to the El Royale itself. If not for the shaky third act and a run time that is about 20 minutes too long Bad Times at the El Royale would be one of my top movies of the year. Instead it will have to settle a little lower down the list but I have a feeling this movie will turn into one of those that I remember more for the good than the bad.