If you’ve ever been travelling, you’ve likely had a bad time at a hotel, though spare a thought for the poor group of characters and their misadventures that make up Bad Times at the El Royale. Taking place at the titular hotel, this film revolves around the travellers who all show up one afternoon: the weary and well-meaning Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), suave businessman Laramie (Jon Hamm), and the stand-offish and mysterious Emily (Dakota Johnson).
Of course, just about no-one is as they seem, but their actual identities and their troubling hidden pasts will unveil at ease throughout this joyous piece of storytelling. Their facades are chipped away as they conspire against each other, even against the hotel itself and its lonesome bus-boy Miles (Lewis Pullman).
With each character given their own dedicated chapter, this gives ample time to who they are, why they are at the El Royale, and what is possibly at stake for them. We see as each of these stories interweave with one another, done in a Pulp Fiction-esque way where certain plot points are re-seen through various perspectives. Voyeurism plays a big part in this film as it diverts our gaze to areas we shouldn’t be looking, and does the same with these nosey characters.
It’s an appropriate kind of viewpoint to be taking, given this film is immersed in its late 60s setting and surveillance is a big topic on its mind. It’s not just the muscular cars and the fashion sense and the hotel rooms’ decorations that are telling of this time, but also the common themes of the Nixon era such as spying, the deceitfulness of the country, and a cultural aimlessness that results in an ungodly violence.
Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) makes an appearance late in the film as the charismatic and magnetic Charles Manson-like cult figure. Although his elongated sequence is overly lengthy, grinds the film along, and doesn’t quite cap off what has been initially built upon, this ending show-off of sadism and disturbed playfulness is still a joy to watch, especially if you enjoy watching Chris Hemsworth dancing shirtless to Deep Purple’s Hush (and who doesn’t?).
This story-heavy film, that places as much importance on how things happen as it does to what happens, falters and stumbles with some of its revelations, but these missteps are overshadowed by the immense fun of being introduced to these characters in this single setting and watching them go about their plans as they evolve or shred apart in front of their faces. Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t quite add up to the tremendous hindsight tale of 60s deterioration that it initially hints at, but it still stands as an accomplished, highly original, and almost-always captivating piece of cinematic storytelling.