The sheer arrogance of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” a film that suffocates at the hands of its own grandstanding, is a tedious lesson for aspiring filmmakers: never, ever make a talky film if your dialogue isn’t compelling. This dark crime thriller falls on the tired rather than vibrant end of the creative spectrum, which is a shame when you consider the talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Seven strangers with sinister secrets meet by chance at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a hotel with its own dark past that straddles the California and Nevada border. The story takes place over the course of one night as mysteries are unearthed in a violent, bloody fashion. The end result is akin to something a film student would make if they were trying to (poorly) imitate Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. Someone should remind writer / director Drew Goddard there’s a fine line between an homage and a rip-off.
The cast (including Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, and Jon Hamm) elevates the material, but their characters are boring. The puzzle unfolds at a snail’s pace. I don’t mind waiting if there’s a good payoff, but the only purpose the sluggishness serves is to mask the fact that there’s very little story. Goddard is often too clever for his own good. Watch as he overstuffs every clichéd indie element (from idiosyncratic camera language, to stale characters like a cult leader called Billy Lee and an ex-con priest, to showy staging that’s unnecessarily set to oldies music) to try to create wannabe iconic scenes (he fails). This is precisely the type of pretentious, style-over-substance, arty crap that makes audiences hate movies like this.
Case in point: the not-so-original idea of telling the story from the overlapping point of view of each character, with each room at the motel setting the parameters for an individual chapter-like structure. Even worse is that while the soundtrack features several hip arrangements of classic 60s songs, it relies so heavily on music (please don’t make a drinking game out of every shot of a jukebox needle hitting a record or anytime a character laments that it’s “too quiet,” or you’ll be plastered before the halfway mark) that the repetitiveness feels silly. There’s even an irritating MacGuffin (that’s never resolved) to add further frustration.
The film’s strength comes from the violent, artistic visuals, but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before. This movie looks great, and the set design is a feast for those who appreciate a keen attention to detail. What a shame there’s not enough story to back it up.