Like a matryoshka doll revealing increasingly twisted craftsmanship in every nesting, Bad Times at the El Royale serves up a dark humored, sometimes disturbed narrative that consistently surprises.
Though he all too rarely wades into directorial waters, when he does deign to dip his toe in, writer/director Drew Goddard has delivered. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, his films scratch at your shallow memory, refusing to be consigned to the jumbled vaults of forgotten experience. Who can forget the conversation generated by Cabin in the Woods on both sides of the enjoyment spectrum? Bad Times at the El Royale, while perhaps less inventive than Cabin in the Woods, is in no way less enjoyable.
As mentioned above, El Royale is constructed in a kind of cinematic Russian doll narrative, giving us big, surface level brush-strokes of character, plot, and setting at the onset, painting the surface of the outer doll-face with the base sketch that will only become more impressively detailed as we delve further into each revealed nest. In 1969, there’s a hotel tucked away in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, built on the border of Nevada and California, half on one side, half on the other. Once the go-to place for the rich and powerful, now its perhaps fallen to the status of a Motel 6, somewhere to stop when an inquiring eye is the last thing you need. So, it’s fitting that six strangers, all of them Russian dolls themselves, multi-layered, and not at all what they seem, end up taking rooms simultaneously. It isn’t long before they begin to discover that the pretexts under which they met each other are false, and that there’s more to the hotel than meets the eye, like a Russ...you get the idea.
At the risk of sounding rote, the matryoshka comparison lets Goddard peel his characters back layer by layer, constantly forcing the audience's impressions of them to change. Nobody is much of a good person, but they’re also not completely bad either. Each scene, each interaction, lays bare another facet of the cast, and we reevaluate on the fly, shifting our allegiances, who we’re rooting for. It’s challenging to juggle so many stories and character motivations and keep the story coherent, but Goddard is up to the task, unfolding the narrative with professional ease while leaving a few visual Easter eggs never explicitly explained but left for those hawk-eyed consumers of subtext and clues to puzzle out. Equally challenging in a narrative with this many cast members, is that each character is given the time to complete their arc. Some of those arcs end suddenly, others unfold slowly over the course of the entire film, but each one is given his or her due. With liberal smatterings of backstory in the form of flashback scenes, we construct full character profiles for each of the six hotel guests. This helps us understand where they’re coming from, helps us forgive and overlook some of their actions throughout the plot, and ultimately helps us root for what are clearly flawed protagonists, even when associating them with the word may be stretching its meaning to its thinnest boundaries.
Adding to the appeal of the film is the amazing set design and camera work. It’s a beautiful film to watch, photographed in wondrous color and appealing framing that can only be described as candy for our eyes. The glittering gold of the hotel lobby washes the screen in warm tones, offset by the hard neon of the outdoor scenes, played off the cooler colors of the hotel rooms. It’s vibrant, a living image that leaves a pleasant fuzz of visual contentment in our brains.
The only stumbling block El Royale hits in its substantial runtime is just that—the runtime. The film is overlong, clocking in at 141 minutes. With its sweeping scope of narrative, character, and setting, El Royale suffers from a bit of self-indulgence, unfolding certain scenes painfully slowly, especially in the first third of the film. It revels its own self-love, which can be grating on the most patient of viewers and downright intolerable on the least. Some musical numbers, revisited scenes and sequences could have been cut down for time, so as to not outstay their welcome.
Bad Times at the El Royale is an overwhelmingly good film. It’s not perfect, but as a surprising, divertive experience in popcorn entertainment mixed with some genuine filmmaking, it settles comfortably in front of our eyes and confidently unspools. Like the titular hotel, El Royale stands firmly on both sides of a border of its own, feet firmly planted in the currents of artistry and commercial appeal, equally at home in both. Like the hotel, secluded layers are its bread and butter, but unlike it, it refuses to fade into the obscurity of consciousness.