By Jillian Diamond
With the recent glut of high-profile action movies and remakes, the noir film would seem to have gone the way of the buffalo. Though many dramatic noirs occupy film buffs’ shelves as much-beloved classics, the genre has all but disappeared as of late. But there is still hope for the noir fan – “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a complex, twisty return to the genre, complete with a shady cast of characters and mysteries and secrets in abundance, all topped off with a healthy dose of Cold War-era paranoia.
The film is directed by Drew Goddard, who horror buffs may recognize as the director of 2011’s “The Cabin in the Woods.” “Bad Times” offers the same kind of cheeky meta that Goddard’s debut film did, but instead of poking fun at the predictability of the horror genre, it flips the idea of a noir on its head. The whole thing feels like a play — save for some character-building flashbacks and an interlude early on in the film, the story is entirely confined to the titular hotel. The El Royale is a shadow of what it once was, its gambling license revoked and its staff numbering one — which is what makes it a perfect place for a priest (Jeff Bridges), a club singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) and a mysterious hippie (Dakota Johnson) to butt heads.
Though “Bad Times” is filled with big-name actors, it’s the smaller names that really make the movie. Erivo’s turn as Darlene Sweet is a tense, emotional affair overlaid onto a backdrop of 1960s racism, and Lewis Pullman delivers a great performance as Miles Miller, the impressionable, mild-mannered hotel worker with more than a few skeletons in the closet.
Like “The Cabin in the Woods,” the movie is laden with twists, and grows increasingly surreal as it progresses. There are so many twists, in fact, that it is difficult to discuss the plot of the movie without spoiling anything. Some of them stick the landing and truly shock the viewer. Others, though, especially the ones later in the movie, are exhausting and may leave the audience begging for the action to slow down.
Because of the excess of twists, the story does have its faults; there are several plot threads that, while adding to the film’s air of mystery, never get explicitly resolved. In addition, about midway through the movie the story becomes much more nonlinear, with multiple characters experiencing the same moment at different times. While it’s an interesting decision, it doesn’t add anything really necessary to the plot and makes the film feel a little too long. But “Bad Times”’ dark humor-filled script and snappy dialogue makes the first half fly by, and leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat wondering what’s going to happen next.
Special attention should also be given to the film’s production design, which acts as a mirror for the plot. As “Bad Times”’ story descends into madness, so does the hotel descend into disrepair and destruction. Every detail, from the too-old sandwiches in the vending machine to the dusty record player, is lovingly crafted and adds even more to the film’s palpable atmosphere. Once again, Goddard has created a love letter to a classic genre — and as hard as it is to read the handwriting, the sentiment is there.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” premiered in theatres on October 12, 2018.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of “Bad Times at the El Royale”‘s Facebook page.
Jillian Diamond is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.