Some of you may not like this Bad Times at the El Royale because it is too slow.
That’s okay. Good stories take time to lay out all the pieces, set all the traps, and prep all the parties for action. It doesn’t take long for directors like Drew Goddard to set such things up, however. The fun comes when he kicks over that first piece, and we get to watch them all fall.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a multi-perspective mystery of sorts that ends up being much more diabolical than we ever expected. When the stories start to flesh out and we see who our characters are, a few things become apparent. First, that every character that he introduces us to is deeply flawed. Next, that they are somehow drawn to the El Royale out of an odd and maybe magical need for self-destruction. And finally, that all of this plays out over the soulful soundtrack provided by a Black woman named Darlene, played by a multitalented queen of the stage, Cynthia Erivo.
She is not the billed star of the film and was never mentioned as one of the leads. Neither were three other actors who stole the film. (They lost it for a moment when Chris Hemsworth waltzed in wringing wet, with his top nearly off, but that was only momentary.)
Hollywood Reporter described the film as the “ensemble cast…a bankable Oscar winner (Jeff Bridges), an Avenger (Chris Hemsworth), the lead of one of the most celebrated TV dramas ever (Jon Hamm) and one-half of the Fifty Shades franchise (Dakota Johnson).” These award-winning veteran actors were great in the film, but their performances were eclipsed by their supporting cast.
Nowhere in that description is mention of the three characters who really carried the Bad Times at the El Royale and provided the much entertainment of the film—the Black lounge singer Darlene (Erivo), Ruth (Cailee Spaeny) the brainwashed, damaged and diabolical teen, and Miles (Lewis Pullman), the guilt-riddled maintenance man/bellhop/barkeep/cook/concierge of the El Royale. Goddard’s undersell of these three characters is the genius and also the blind spot of the film.
The Characters Who Really Own the Screen
The supporting characters of Bad Times at the El Royale are the ones who have the most fully developed storylines and also the most interesting interactions. Bridges’ faux-Father Flynn comes close but is quickly eclipsed by Darlene as Erivo takes her voice and her role and runs circles about the man. Without Erivo, Bridges’ character is boring and flat. His obsession with Darlene and his white-savior-complex-gone-wrong moments are what make her even more intriguing. The first time we hear Erivo belt out her sultry and soulful notes, we see that Flynn is transfixed. So is a person she can’t even see, someone who’s spying on them all. This singer has a voice that will stop any show in its tracks. It also ends up scaring the scariest villain of all Billy Lee.
Later, we find that, as typical of the treatment of Black women in the 1960s, Darlene was forced to stifle her magical voice to appease others. In a way, she never knew of her own power until she unleashed it upon the El Royale. Goddard gives this Black woman space to show how the stress and oppression of race and misogyny have made her cautious and vigilant about every move she has made. This includes a lack of confidence in her own voice.
Upon reaching the hotel in the very beginning of the film, we see her staring at the line between the states and wondering just how different things will be in California versus Nevada. She nervously approaches and then crosses the line until issues much more pressing than race and gender forces her to forget that caution.
At one point, she is forced to collaborate with her fellow hotel-mates which only occurs when she is reminded of her “place” in 1960s America. The faux-Father’s frank observation that she is a black woman with a gun running alone and barefoot in the woods. Would police really believe she was innocent of what was going down at the El Royale?
She knows the answer.
Ruth is the child who starts off a kidnapping victim, who may be a refugee from a cult or a flower child in love with a problematic beau (Hemsworth, whose open-shirted dance to “Deep Purple” is both sexy and scary as hell). She literally and figuratively lights the whole hotel on fire with one phone call. Spaeny portrays a girl who demands our empathy while simultaneously showing us that she intends to live her own best life even if that life doesn’t seem great to anyone else. Her inner light has died, and she isn’t afraid of destroying the world to be back with the twisted man she loves.
Miles is the jack of all trades at the El Royale, whose story is the most revealing and vital to the narrative. He has worked for the hotel for years since its heyday has passed, coming from a dark career with a lot of bodies piled onto his subconscious. His stint at the El Royale has only meant more misdeeds, that he cannot escape. His soul is heavy, he must confess, but he has a past that the group will need if they intend to make it out of the El Royale alive.
A Few Misses at the El Royale
The deliberate pacing of the narrative, the slow sprinkling of details until they are thick enough to make out just what the hell is going on. The pacing may be too much for some people these days. The very first scene has no dialogue but is chock full of information that you will need later on. This gathering of clues while watching each character’s story unfold is the purpose of this wickedly enticing film. A few details are left dangling, like Jon Hamm’s character’s mysterious errand and the call he made to a Calvary who never materialized. These details are irritating but easy to swallow because Hamm’s character is neither the central focus nor is he the most interesting of the group.
Never a Dull Moment
Seven people converge upon a run-down hotel in the mountains in the 1960s. No one is there by accident, and not everyone will find their way home in the morning. Although it has its faults, you will find this film to be a good piece of storytelling, full of “oh, sh*t!” moments that will not leave you bored in your seat.
And, if you are really paying attention, you’ll see why Cynthia Erivo is my new fave celeb to watch.
Bad Times at the El Royale is in theaters October 11, 2018.
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Jonita Davis is a writer, mother, a certified nerd, and writer of Black Girl Nerds. Davis is a critic and journalist. She has been writing for 13 years about the way pop culture and politics affect our lives as parents, women, black women, nerds, and people of this planet.