Why even have a bell?
Writer/director Drew Goddard‘s affinity for voyeuristic set-ups continues with Bad Times at the El Royale‘s “pervert hotel” aesthetic. His first feature-length screenplay (Cloverfield) was found footage, his directorial debut (The Cabin in the Woods) had a two-way mirror as well as a science fiction surveillance conceit, and now we get a hidden corridor of nefarious delights on the border of California and Nevada with windows spying upon every guest who so chooses the titular accommodations to rest his/her head. You can’t blame him for returning to this well since it proves the perfect device with which to augment the morally gray headspace of flawed characters uncertain of their next move and on the lookout for an advantage. Its secrets satisfy while the big reveals remain lying in wait.
Utilizing this gimmick also renders an ensemble this large less unwieldy. Rather than force the viewer into the sole position of knowing everything, these windows take us out of the equation altogether by putting the onus on those characters lucky enough (or not) to catch a stolen glimpse of someone else in a moment of privacy. We can assume the why of a priest (Jeff Bridges‘ Father Flynn) coming to a hotel its own bellhop (Lewis Pullman‘s Miles Miller) deems unsuitable for God. We can be annoyed by Laramie Sullivan’s (Jon Hamm) perpetual salesman smile (and jokes of entitlement that fall deafeningly flat) and wonder why Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) has rolls of bedding under each arm. But their internal whys are less interesting than their outward reactions.
Our intrigue therefore lies in what Flynn will do upon realizing the thing he seeks is in Darlene’s room rather than his own. We rest easy once Sullivan creeps through the pervert parlor only to find Darlene belting The Isley Brothers before inching closer to the edge of our seats upon witnessing guest number four (Dakota Johnson‘s Emily) dragging a bound, gagged, and unconscious girl (Cailee Spaeny‘s Rose) into her room’s empty chair. What will that discovery push Sullivan to do? How will it color his impression of the sweetly innocent Miles in over his head as the sole employee on the premises? And who’s to argue whether the figures that seem malicious aren’t being falsely accused via trope-heavy preconceptions while the angels walk towards a self-manufactured oblivion?
The fact that we can’t know the answers is why we watch because Goddard isn’t the type to give the game away without effort. So he turns the whole into carefully constructed chapters revealing just enough of each character’s backstory to fill in two blanks while creating four more. The order of these sections might be arbitrarily drawn as far as who they each are and what they’re willing to do, but they’re measured with the utmost precision contextually speaking. The cause of one’s desperation becomes crucial to his/her actions and thus a domino amongst many whose greatest impact is born from a very specific spot on the board. Sullivan’s secret leads him to the hallway. Flynn’s defeat takes him to Darlene. And so on and so forth.
By pulling back you’ll see many structural similarities to Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight as well as his briefcase MacGuffin from Pulp Fiction courtesy of a bag of cash and film reel of sordid affairs. This is a superficial comparison, however, as Bad Times at the El Royale can’t reach the dramatic heights of those two films. It sets its characters up as pawns to the mystery first, human beings second. As a result, Goddard’s attempts to infuse emotion for audience waterworks where it concerns Rose’s abusive father or Miles’ dark past never feel sincere. We don’t know enough about them to care about who they are beyond this specific single-locale puzzle. The film therefore excels more in the shock and awe action than its hopefully empathetic motivations.
There are exceptions, however. We do find ourselves caring about Father Flynn—both due to how his deteriorating mind affects his safety and the long path he’s taken to get here. Some of this is Bridges delivering a performance that transcends the intentionally pulpy design of the movie, but most comes from having the stunningly brilliant feature debut of Cynthia Erivo to work against. Her Darlene is present during Flynn’s best scenes and her compassion for his plight (and desperation within her own) ensures that we will pull for these two to find salvation inside the seedy underbelly of violence, espionage, and cult hive mind gradually encroaching upon their simpler hopes for a better tomorrow. Erivo’s soulful renditions of a stellar soundtrack ultimately provide the humanity missing elsewhere.
Darlene also gets the best lines of dialogue with biting commentary for the toxic creatures in her presence that’s spoken through a calm, collected demeanor. She’s the one true innocent amongst them, her trajectory proven via flashback (with Xavier Dolan as her own personal devil) to be dignified rather than opportunistic. Everything she says is therefore weighty with intent instead of dripping in artificial self-importance, her frustration masked by a need to be civil as a means for survival only until realizing her fate is already sealed. Finally etiquette can be thrown out the window for a take-no-prisoners attitude as Ervio dismantles the marketing campaign’s desire to shine Chris Hemsworth‘s Billy Lee in a humorously sexpot light with a scathing takedown relevant to today’s climate in multiple ways.
Hemsworth’s Lee is the ostensible boogeyman waiting in the wings for his grand arrival—one carrying excitement and morbid fun despite feeling very much tacked on. This goes back to everyone’s utility to the story taking precedence over identity, his importance to Emily and Rose’s backstory less about them and than injecting a “big bad” to the finale. The motions are therefore worthwhile even if they’re hollow. His placement catalyzes some great moments from Erivo, Bridges, and Pullman whether or not we acknowledge him as more than a glossy distraction with no real power. Goddard is lucky the period aesthetic and caricatured figures are enough to win us over because the two-dimensional anti-whodunit at its core is lacking. It’s style over substance, but the ratio still works.
 Jon Hamm stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYAL
 Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYAL
 Chris Hemsworth stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYAL.