Review: 'Bad Times at the El Royale' Taps Into Moral Choice

This review was originally published for UW Film Club and has since been republished here with the author’s permission.

Seven years after the release of his subversive horror film, Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard returns to the directing with the mystery thriller, Bad Times at the El Royale. In the meanwhile, Goddard has kept himself busy with scripts like The Martian, but for him to return to directing probably means he sees something special in this particular script. Something has drawn him out of the writers room and back into the director’s chair, and after seeing it, there is much more to the film than what its unique premise sells itself on.

The story takes place at the El Royale, a remote hotel located on the border between Nevada and California. After the outlawing of gambling, the hotel falls in popularity, and now, a sole bell boy (Lewis Pullman) runs the whole hotel. One day, four guests converge on the hotel: a priest (Jeff Bridges), a salesman (Jon Hamm), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakotah Johnson), each with their own stories of why they’re here, but as we soon will learn, appearances aren’t what they seem as secrets unfold and paths cross one another.

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The film has the feel of something like Murder on the Orient Express; a cast of characters are brought together under strange circumstances to a remote location when things start to go awry. It’s a proximate who-done-it tale, if you will, full of mystery and suspicion, where everyone has ulterior motives, and every action is questioned. This looming sense of distrust can be attributed to the film’s construction. The story is told in a chapter format focusing on individual characters. We start one chapter that picks up where another left off or we end a chapter on a cliff hanger that is only resolved with another chapter later on. In that way, the film is acting like a narrative puzzle, asking audiences to piece together events, characters, and motives as they’re provided. 

This type of construction is a major strength of the film. Perhaps self-explanatory, but a mystery thriller requires a true mystery in order for it work as intended, and to Goddard’s credit, the script is layered in such a way where things are never clear. Not in a crippling way, but rather in a conscious way, one that engages your curiosity. A priest, salesman, and singer are clearly not all brought to the El Royale out of sheer circumstance (though it does have the makings for a good joke set up), so it is inherent in that suspicion where much of the film’s appeal comes from. As Goddard plays his cards, there is a revelatory quality where back stories and motives are revealed that in turn satisfies our desire to connect all the dots. It’s a feeling that will surely evoke one or two ‘ah-hahs’ out of you. 

The film also extends beyond its star-filled cast and novelty aesthetics. One of the quaint points about the setting is that the hotel is split in half by the California-Nevada border, allowing guests to choose housing in one side or the other. It isn’t until late in the film that this detail of choice becomes more profound. Morality and aspects of choice emerge as its predominate theme. The line that divides the hotel acts a metaphorical moral line in the film, where our characters choose between right and wrong time and again to make declarations about who they are, and even if there is only two sides, straddling the line that divides them, in the gray area so to speak, is very well possible. 

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However, there are some hiccups in this tale. Chris Hemsworth’s character, a Charles Manson-esk hippie cult leader named Billy Lee, enters the film in the last act and forces the film to enter a line of questioning about morality. Up until this point, the code of morality is only noted. When Hemsworth enters, the film sits you down and forces you into this new mode of thinking. Where you might of been trying to solve the mystery at the start, you are now entered into a new mode about morality. It’s not until this revelatory moment where you realize the actions taken prior have some deeper underlying meaning. I can’t say that this shake up is detrimental to the film, but it should be noted that the film flips like a switch as it narrows in on one scene for an extended period to nail down its message. 

The film is fixated on telling a tale of moral choice. Through our band of characters and puzzling narrative, Goddard has created a mystery thriller where the moral compass emerges as the conflict at hand unfolds. While there is a heavy handed approach to its messaging near the end, the moral conflict, winding mystery, and star-filled cast add up to a film that well exceeds its minor shortcomings. As enigmatic as it is engaging, Bad Times at the El Royale is a an excellent mystery film that will surely satisfy your inner Sherlock and Kantian philosopher. 

Score: 4/5