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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Bad Times at the El Royale movie review: bad times indeed

Bad Times at the El Royale red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A self-indulgent, faux-woke mashup of noir crime, black comedy, and Tarantino-esque ultraviolence. Some great performances, including a spectacular feature debut from Cynthia Erivo; shame they’re so wasted.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

I love it when a movie offers up its own best critiques. I mean, I always want to love every movie and I’m always disappointed when a movie doesn’t let me love it, but if I’m gonna hate a movie — and boy did I hate this one — it’s kinda fun to speculate that maybe it knew all along, if only subconsciously, what its problems are and where it all goes so wrong.

So, the very first line of dialogue in Bad Times at the El Royale is this: “Are you lost, Father?” This is prescient, as El Royale is very lost indeed, right from the beginning, though the depths of its lostness aren’t obvious at first. Initially, as I waded all the stuff happening without any suggestion of an actual story about to kick off, just so many random and incoherent happenings that never move the film beyond spinning its narrative wheels, I thought: Dull Times at the El Royale. And yet things would go beyond dull and into infuriating very quickly.

“Is this not the Twin Peaks sequel? No? Damn.”

“Is this not the Twin Peaks sequel? No? Damn.”

A little later, that seemingly lost elderly priest, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges: Only the Brave, Kingsman: The Golden Circle), will apologize to the woman who was worried about him, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and explain to her about the dementia that is slowly robbing him of his faculties. It’s genuinely a lovely little character sketch, and a sad one, what with Flynn’s embarrassment at being “scattered” and zoning out at inappropriate times, and thanks to Bridges’s talent for expressing the pathos of diminished manliness. (Erivo is also very good at not extending pity to him, her pragmatic character recognizing that pity would make him feel even worse.) Still, the scattered nature of this mess of a movie is by now starting to make itself plain, and Flynn’s little confession lands with precisely the wrong kind of thud.

But the best — the absolute best — self-own comes toward the end of the film, when Darlene is expressing, at a moment when a less pragmatic woman might be screaming in terror, her boredom and her exhaustion with men and their bullshit, especially men who love the sound of their own voices. In my head, Erivo gives a little take to the camera right at the end of her glorious little spiel, as if to say, “I am looking at you, Drew Goddard.” (Though in reality I am certain that Erivo, a TV actor making her feature debut here, is delighted that writer-director Goddard handed her such a juicy role, even if the movie itself turned out to be so deeply rancid. It’s not her fault. She is so good, and it’s such a shame that the movie is not worthy of her. She will also be seen in Steve McQueen’s upcoming heist thriller Widows — I’ve seen it; it’s superb and so is she — and is currently shooting Harriet, in which she portrays Harriet Tubman for director Kasi Lemmons fuck yes.)

“D’ya think if we ran, just got the hell outta here, they’d send anybody after us?”

“D’ya think if we ran, just got the hell outta here, they’d send anybody after us?”

El Royale is Goddard’s second feature as director, after The Cabin in the Woods, which so brilliantly deconstructed horror movies; he’s written many scripts, most recently the terrific The Martian but also the terrible World War Z. Here, he has seemingly been given free reign to do whatever he wants, and the result is not pretty: this is a self-indulgent disaster that, apparently, wants to invoke noir crime dramas, black comedies about bad people, and Tarantino-esque ultraviolence, all while being woke about the abuse that women endure and the toxic masculinity that damages men. Also too he threw in some stuff about how Violence Is Bad, even while his movie is extremely violent. And he can’t not be salacious about any of it at the same time.

Boy howdy, Goddard really does love the sound of his cinematic voice! He keeps showing us the same events occurring among the very few guests at the El Royale Motel seen from their different perspectives, which isn’t enlightening or even remotely interesting but is arty or philosophical or some shit? (Spoiler: It isn’t. It’s adolescent film-school pretense.) In addition to the priest, who of course is not quite what he seems, and Darlene, who is a professional singer with the voice of an angel, the couple of other guests are vacuum-cleaner salesman (or is he?) Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm: Beirut, Baby Driver); and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson: Fifty Shades Freed, How to Be Single), who checks in with a surreptitious kidnap victim (or is she?), Ruth (Cailee Spaeny: Pacific Rim: Uprising). There is apparently only one employee at the entire establishment, nervous manager-clerk-cleaner Miles (Lewis Pullman: Battle of the Sexes, Aftermath), which seems unlikely. Why are there scarcely any people here? (There’s an attempt at explanation, about the motel being in a business slump, but it doesn’t quite work.) I was waiting for the revelation of something deeply sinister, perhaps even paranormal, to explain the implausible isolation of what we’re witnessing, perhaps à la Cabin in the Woods, or even the 2003 movie Identity, which unfortunately kept springing to mind; that one was also about a group of strangers oddly sequestered at a rainy neon-soaked motel. I hated that one, too, because it was “maybe the cheatingest movie I’ve ever seen,” but somehow it’s even worse that El Royale is nothing more than exactly what it is offering up on its tedious surface.

“Are you not entertained by my half-naked glory? Even if I’m creepy AF?”

“Are you not entertained by my half-naked glory? Even if I’m creepy AF?”

What is this going to be about? Where is this going? El Royale never finds a reason for its own existence. It never justifies anything it deploys for flavor. The motel is located on the outskirts of Tahoe, straddling the Nevada/California border — there’s literally a red line running through the building and the parking lot, with “California” labeled on one side and “Nevada” on the other. If this is meant to have some significance — something about borderlands or gray areas, maybe? — that’s never clear. The temporal setting is somewhere between the very late 1960s and the very early 70s, but who knows what that is intended to convey that setting it today wouldn’t have, other than a chance to wallow in some vintage retro set and costume design. None of this is enough flavor to satisfy on its own.

Bad Times at the El Royale utterly wastes its spectacular cast, which makes it all even more tragic. Shirtless Chris Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War, 12 Strong) shows up later, and he’s a villain, and most definitely not the sexy presence the movie’s marketing has sold him as. Nor is he genuinely seductive, which his Charles Manson–esque cult leader is seemingly intended to be. All part of Goddard’s tone-deaf salaciousness. But Hemsworth has a moment when the look on his face tells you he could have pulled off so much more than desperately little Goddard was asking of him. Oh, and apparently The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto is in this, and honestly he didn’t even register, he’s so backgrounded, which is criminal.

Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t have anywhere near enough there there to support its excruciating almost-two-and-a half-hour runtime. It never rises above the banality of its own obviousness. I wish I knew what Goddard thought he was aiming at, but any point to this disarray is very much missing.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

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Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) | directed by Drew Goddard
US/Can release: Oct 12 2018
UK/Ire release: Oct 12 2018

MPAA: rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, threat, language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • LaSargenta

    I am extremely disappointed to read this.


    Except about Ms. Erivo.

  • DiggityDigletts

    If you’re reading this comment, it may be too late, on the off chance however, that you have come to the comments before reading this review I offer this advice: don’t, don’t read it you’ll be better for it.

    Going to the movies is like going to the pub and ordering the same chicken schnitzel of the menu. Yea it’s safe, and you’ll enjoy the meal enough, just like you have every other time, but you’ll never know what homemade southern friend chicken burger is like until you step out of your comfort zone.

    This movie is the chicken burger.

    Step out of your comfort zone, stop reading online reviews try something different and get a chicken burger. You deserve it.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Actually, they don’t serve chicken schnitzel in many restaurants in my part of the country. And I can think of lots of food that I like much better than chicken burgers, many of which I would have never tried if I had just settled for chicken burgers every time I wanted to eat something different.

    Besides, judging from MaryAnn’s description, this movie sounds more like a White Castle burger. And I’m not particularly fond of White Castle burgers…

    Edited to Add:

    I will give you props for not making a Royale with Cheese joke.

  • Bluejay

    I dunno, man. If the chicken burger costs $15, and I’m buying one for myself or even several more burgers for my family, I might want to check out the restaurant reviews and see if people who have eaten it think it’s worth all that money.

    Also: just because MaryAnn doesn’t like this particular burger doesn’t mean she only likes chicken shnitzels. She’s positively reviewed lots of dishes that are outside people’s comfort zones.

    Also also: what if this had been a positive review? Would you still be saying “stop reading online reviews,” or would you encourage people to pay attention to the glowing review? You gotta be consistent, dude.

    Also also also: why should I give your opinion, Random Internet Stranger, more weight than the opinion of someone whose reviews I’ve been reading and trusting for over a decade? Serious question. If it’s your opinion against hers, then hers wins for me, unless you can prove you’ve got objectively better taste. (Hint: you can’t.) :-)

    Finally: I reserve the right to see the movie anyway, and might disagree with MaryAnn. But it never hurts to be exposed to someone else’s opinion and consider whether they might have some good points. None of us are sheep blindly following a leader here.

  • Oh, please DO TELL what is adventurous about this movie.

    WTF pubs are you going to that have chicken schnitzel on the menu but not chicken burgers? Are you just trolling us?


    stop reading online reviews

    So, according to you, people shouldn’t trust all the critics who’ve made this movie 70% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes?

  • I love White Castle burgers. I wish this movie were as satisfying as a sack of WC burgers.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    And what kind of sad life does one have to lead that a chicken burger counts as “adventurous”?

    “Hey, guys! Just ate the most amazing thing! They cooked some beans and put them on a piece of really thin flat bread. Then they sprinkled cheese on it and rolled it up! And I ate it, WITH MY HANDS! Incredible! I think the foreign looking lady who made it called it a ‘bore-eye-tah’ or something!”

  • DiggityDigletts

    I think you’re all reading into the analogy a little to literally.

    Mary-Anna you quoted me, then misinterpreted my very obviouso statement, which concerns me. I didn’t say domtd trust reviews. I said stop reading them.

    If people here are having arr really getting hung up on the whole chicken burger thing I’ll just be literal here, because I never said the movie was “adventurous” either.

    Movie was good, bit on the long side, worth the money though. Not your average pandering to chinese audiences, PG 13 blockbuster budget money grab.

  • DiggityDigletts

    Think you’re massing the point Doctor. It’s not rocket science.

  • DiggityDigletts

    Bluejay I agree with most things you are saying, and I appreciate you addressing multi points.
    You’re final point especially, I did get hung up on the fact that reviews don’t hold as much power over most viewers want to see you a film.

    I am, however consistent with “stop reading reviews”. Although this is my first time on this site.
    Unfortunately with the internet being a medium that is so popular and “everyman” reviews can come from “Proffesional critics” which I would disagree are any different from MaryAnne who I would put in the “hobby critic” catagory, or “passionate movie goer” or the third “everyman” the most dangerous of all randoms who just want to trash or praise movies.

    I think the whole distrusting my opinion because I don’t use my real name is a bit unfair, but the comparison of taste you uses was. I’m happy to give you a list of movies I enjoy to give you a better understanding of my tastes and biases if you like.

  • DiggityDigletts

    Tonio, I see know the opportunity I had for a cheese joke, and I am disappointed I missed out
    The burgers must be better where I come from, I think I didn’t count for cultural differences.
    If any of you come to Australia, I’ll honestly take you out to a nice burger place.

    Tonio, give the movie a watch, unbiased as possible and get back to me.

  • Bluejay

    “everyman” reviews can come from “Proffesional critics” which I would disagree are any different from MaryAnne who I would put in the “hobby critic” catagory, or “passionate movie goer” or the third “everyman” the most dangerous of all randoms who just want to trash or praise movies.

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. “Everyman” reviews can come from professional critics, who are no different than hobbyists? You seem to be putting all critics in the same category.

    Just two points:

    1. MaryAnn is a professional critic. Read her bio page.

    2. If you don’t want people to read “everyman” opinions about movies, then you shouldn’t be sharing your own.

  • DiggityDigletts

    I think you’re starting to deviate from the point I was trying to make.

    So I’ll address your two points.

    With regards to your statement about pro vs. Hobby critics

    One gets paid.
    One doesnt.

    I don’t doubt Mary Anne is one of those I was not disputimg that.

    Your second point. I see what you’re trying to say I think. That I am being a hypocrite by people to not read reviews and try something different.

    So I haven’t even given a review of this film yet.

    So I’ll spare you with my “everyman” review. Unless invited too.

    Hope that clarifies :)

  • Bluejay

    One gets paid. One doesnt. I don’t doubt Mary Anne is one of those I was not disputimg that.

    You’re not actually saying anything, because those are the only two possibilities. OF COURSE she’s “one of those.”

    So I’ll spare you with my “everyman” review.

    Yeah? You gave your review here. “Good, bit on the long side, worth the money, not your average pandering.” But thanks for sparing me the long version.

    I think you’re starting to deviate from the point I was trying to make.

    The only point you were trying to make is that you liked this movie and MaryAnn didn’t, so you’re trying to tell her readers “Don’t read reviews” and see the movie because YOU said so. I’ve just been pointing out the flaws in that argument.

    Done here.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Dude, it’s your crappy analogy obscuring your point. Which could probably been made more intelligently and succinctly with a simple “I actually enjoyed this movie, and found it more original than MAJ did.” But you went for clever, and failed.

  • DiggityDigletts

    No mate. Nice try though.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    “No” what?

    No, your bad analogy isn’t obscuring your point? You admitted so yourself.

    No, you weren’t trying (and failing) to be clever with your “chicken burger” analogy? Lol, ok.

    No, I haven’t summed up your point? Well, forgive me, I was trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. I was trying to assume that your point wasn’t to come to a film critics website to tell people not to read film critic reviews. I was trying to believe you aren’t that much of an ass. Perhaps I was being to generous.

  • DiggityDigletts

    You weren’t trying to do any of these things don’t give yourself that much credit.

    You misquoted me, than continued on with my analogy.

    You’re just bored and what’s more sad is I’m giving you what you want by replying to you.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Oh, honey, I really was. Truly.

    “You misquoted me…”
    I see that you really really want “get out of your comfort zone” to not be synonymous with “adventurous”, but it is.It’s not even a stretch. The term you’re looking for is “paraphrased”, and in this case, it was completely fair.

    “…than [sic] continued on with my analogy.”
    What? No, seriously, this statement makes no sense. I guess you mean I critiqued you analogy, by pointing out that your choices of safe and “out of your comfort zone” foods were both pretty conventional. I mean, look, if you want to argue by analogy, your analogy is going to have to be apt, or else it makes your argument look foolish, completely obscuring whatever point you’re trying to make.

  • DiggityDigletts

    I am not sure why you are breaking down what I meant, I thought I made it clear.

    Anyway, I hope you watch the movie :)

  • Bluejay

    Another self-deleter. Sigh.

  • chrishaagan

    Jesus, you sound like such a pretentious cunt. I’m only stalking because I’m petty….but…


  • RogerBW

    Truly, your subtle argument convinces me of the virtues of your point of view.
    What was your point of view again?

  • chrishaagan

    That Dr Rocketscience is a pretentious cunt.

    I tried to keep it compact and direct. More of a slogan than an official statement. It fared well at the table meeting, what else can be said?

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