Bad Times at the El Royale is a lot of fun. Perhaps a touch too long and lacking the punch it needed to push it over the top, but still it is mostly a ton of fun to watch as it goes along. It ends up feeling a touch like a discount Tarantino movie, but that is still better than most movies.
The El Royale is a hotel that sits on the state line between California and Nevada. Half of the hotel is in one state and one half in the other; the hotel concierge has an extended presentation on the set up. One night, four guests arrive at the El Royale; salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan(Jon Hamm), priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet(Cynthia Erivo), and the abrasive Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Each of them has their own story and the movie shows each story in sequence, but they all happen simultaneously. All of them have secrets. Even the hotel and its concierge have secrets. All of them smash together and none of the guests leave unscathed.
Seeing all of these separate stories come together is the fun of the movie. Two of the characters are not who they say they are, two are hiding dangerous secrets. Poor Darlene is just trying to find a quiet place to practice for a gig she has the next morning. One character’s secret brings the dangerous Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-like figure who runs something of cult. None of the stories naturally intersect; the characters could have easily shown up on different days and been in and out with no trouble.
The problem is that the movie sets up all these interesting characters and stories, but ends up cutting off some interesting avenues early. I don’t mean to critique what I wish the movie was and not what it is, but I would have liked to see more of at least one or two characters that end up dead fairly early in the film. Other stories get disappointingly anticlimactic conclusions. That is also kind of the point, but in the end it leaves the movie feeling like it lacks a little punch.
Even minor characters make an impact thanks to the cast. Nick Offerman plays a character who dies during the opening credits, but he still makes an impact. The same goes for Shea Whigham as a prison doctor in a scene or two. The big one is Chris Hemsworth, who shows up in the back half as Billy Lee and infuses him with an unforgettable dangerous swagger. The main cast is great as well. Hamm has a special amount of smarm as the unctuous Laramie. Bridges is his usual excellence. The relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman, who plays the concierge Miles, are highlights of the movie; they are the heart. Cynthia’s Darlene is determined despite all the crap that her life has flung at her, and is also capable of thinking on her feet; she is no damsel or rube to be taken in by the various characters. Miles is that sort of rube; he buys it all. He seems pathetic and things proceed to get worse and worse for him, but he never loses the kindness that he alone seems to possess.
Most of this movie is delightful, but there is a little something that is missing. It reminds me of the Hateful Eight, which also sees a group of unrelated people thrown together with deadly results. But that movie has some surprises in the last act that ramp up the drama. This movie spends most of its surprised early and at the end it plays out just like it seems like it will. It just doesn’t quite stick the landing at the end of an otherwise very entertaining film.