That trailer… good God, that trailer. The initial teaser for Bad Times at the El Royale is one of the best teasers in recent memory. It perfectly whets the appetite with a mix of gorgeous visuals, mid-century music, and morsels of plot that spark a multitude of questions. Each seeming to have an infinite number of possible answers. Despite its greatness though, this trailer may best serve as an example of how trailers can be a double-edged sword. As the gestation period between the teaser and release rolls on, the mind wanders and gives birth to hype and excitement. But those quickly solidify into expectations that can hang over the head of the of the film like the proverbial sword.
Watching this film, it felt as though director/writer Drew Goddard had several distinct ideas that on their own were very interesting. The seven strangers who each have a hidden duality and all converge upon a hotel that also has its own dark secrets is a fantastic premise. The comparisons to Tarantino are well-deserved, but where Bad Times stumbles (unlike Tarantino films) is in its attempt to bring those strangers — and the hotel — together in an exciting manner. Characters in Tarantino movies may be long-winded, but typically what they’re saying is quirkily memorable and reveals something about the character or film that furthers both. Characters in Bad Times like to talk a lot, but it’s nowhere near fun and tends to be bland exposition designed to explain themselves and drag out the time in between something interesting happening. To steal a metaphor from the film itself, it’s as though the characters in each of their rooms are exciting and filled with possibilities. But when they leave their rooms and begin to interact with each other, the sense of wonder about them dissipates and the path that’s chosen for each rarely seems to be the most exciting.
While Bad Times isn’t exactly a “slow burn”, it certainly leans heavily on setup with an unspoken promise that a big payoff is coming. The first half of the movie succeeds at setup and uncovering even more questions than the trailer posed. But as the film progresses through the second act and into the third, it never picks up the pace. This seems like a side effect of sticking strictly to the idea of seven strangers with no unifying force between them or around them. Until the third act, there is nothing driving them together or apart and by the time that force is introduced, it feels too late. The random nature of these interactions could still have worked if the film had built any kind of momentum. But momentum is tough to produce when the parts you want to see more of are over too quickly and the pieces that feel like filler drag on for too long. Outside of knowing that the film has to end, there is nothing to indicate that any storylines are coming to a head. It’s as though the film got on a highway midway through and instead of continuing to speed up, decided to set the cruise control at 35 mph until the credits rolled.
The one standout piece of this film is the acting. Every member of the cast carries their own weight as well as the baggage the film heaps on them. Jeff Bridges gives his best performance in quite some time. Newcomer Cynthia Erivo is the surprise star and can act about as well as she sings — that is to say, incredibly. Jon Hamm is arguably the most entertaining. Dakota Johnson and Lewis Pullman provide solid support in their roles which take a bit of a backseat to others. Cailee Spainey isn’t given much to work with and while Chris Hemsworth’s role seeme ripe for a complete breakout performance, something about the film seemed to hold him back from going that extra, crazy mile.
It’s hard to separate the quality of the film from the possibilities of what it could have been. Only time and a second viewing will help get to the bottom of that. But there’s no doubt that Bad Times at the El Royale has all of the right ingredients to be a crazy, sinister version of Clue or a noir-influenced take on The Hateful Eight. But as of now, it feels like someone sold a spec trailer and then struggled with how to turn it into a feature-length film.