It took a while, but I finally checked in at the El Royale to see how a group of seven people could have such a bad time at a two-state-straddling joint that looked like its own slice of Las Vegas during the 1960s. It turns out, when you run into strangers in a dying relic of a motel with a shady past, you never truly know who they are, or what their intentions may be, so naturally things can go sideways when people start to show their true selves.
Due to the nature of Bad Times at the El Royale’s plot, which is best described as a mystery/thriller, I will not be providing a detailed recap of the events that take place. I can tell you that seven unique individuals, on one fateful evening make their way to the El Royale hotel, which straddles the California and Nevada border, and used to be a hot bed for celebrities, politicians, and other famous people to come to for a bit of debauchery. By the time the film begins though, the hotel has all but been forgotten for its former luster, but it becomes a character itself as seven mostly strangers descend upon it for their own unique reasons. Although, as a storm starts to roll in, it’s quickly revealed that everyone is not who they say they are, so over the course of one evening these seven people soon discover the dark side of the El Royale, as well as within their new acquaintances.
Bad Times at the El Royale excels at providing a noir-style thriller, complete with an all-star cast playing equally interesting characters set in an even more intriguing location in the El Royale hotel. It has an onion-like plot that masterfully reveals its layers and master plan one character vignette at a time, and once all the layers have been peeled away, it’s hard not to appreciate the journey thanks to how well each individual layer plays into the overarching narrative. With each passing scene you are given additional pieces to the big narrative puzzle that ultimately tells seven individual stories, which in turn all become one cohesive tale by the time the credits roll.
One could definitely argue that this film suffers from pacing issues thanks to how the narrative is dripped out, and I do think 15-20 minutes of the film could have been cut out, or sped up a bit, but thanks to the brilliant acting and the twisty, well written script, I didn’t mind spending a few extra minutes getting to know the full story behind who each of the seven lead characters were before their time at the El Royale. This film really shines thanks to its characters and how they’re brought to life, so I did enjoy how the story is told in a non-sequential order by spending time with each character individually. This method of storytelling helps the audience understand who the character really is, and why they ended up at the El Royale in the first place, by revealing a bit more of their past and character in a more focused fashion. When you first meet a few characters they’re definitely cloaking who they really are, as well as their true intentions for being at the hotel, but after you watch their individual setup scene, you can start to piece together what they may really be up to.
For a good part of the film your mind will be convinced a certain character is definitely going to be revealed to be the nefarious actor you think they are based on what you’ve been shown and told about them, but then it’ll offer up another detail that can completely change the way you thought about them. While I contend it isn’t hard to eventually guess where all of the seven character’s narratives are ultimately headed, I still greatly enjoyed the journey to get to this revelatory moment, and one final character reveal is saved for the climax, so the plot manages to surprise and pay off throughout.
I just really appreciated, even during some of the overly slow moments, how deliberate the story is crafted, and how the lives of the seven characters all become intertwined through a series of events that technically start 10 years before the film even takes place. You’re not spoon-fed the mystery, nor are you given a plot that is overly complex to try and trick you into thinking you’re watching a well-written mystery thriller play out. You’re given enough information to want more, but not too much to spoil the next potential twist. Like I said this film’s onion-like plot offers you layers upon layers of information to peel through to fully understand why each of the leads is ultimately who they are, and why they may be doing the various things they do during a bad night at the El Royale hotel. Let’s just say that you will definitely have preconceptions about each of the characters after you first meet them about the type of person they may be, but over the course of the film you’ll learn that like in real life, all people wear masks in public for one reason or another, so you truly don’t know who anyone really is until you get to know them. At that point, it may be too late if the person is a rotten egg, which is a conundrum this film explores quite well.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a very entertaining mystery/thriller that shines thanks to how its layered plot is expertly revealed. The characters and the actors who play them are definitely the standouts, but the hotel itself is also quite an intriguing character in its own right. At times the pacing is a bit slow, but thanks to the great writing and acting performances — most notably by Jeff Bridges — I really didn’t find myself wishing for the end to come quicker than originally scheduled. I truly enjoyed piecing together the overarching plot using the individual character vignettes as a roadmap, and while it isn’t too hard to eventually guess where the individual plot threads are headed in the climax, I quite enjoyed the journey to get there, and felt like the narratives kept my mind fully engaged and stimulated. Plus, if you have a thing for abs, Chris Hemsworth’s stomach is on full display in pretty much every scene his character is in, so there’s that added visual bonus if great storytelling isn’t reason enough alone for you to check this flick out. In all seriousness though, if you’re up for an intriguing mystery/thriller that has elements of a horror film to it, and a noir-style execution of its plot, then you can’t go wrong with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale.
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