2018 saw the release of Bad Times at the El Royale, a suspense thriller boasting a star-cast including Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Ervio, Dakota Johnson, John Hamm, Lewis Pullman, and Nick Offerman among others. The film takes place at a nearly deserted hotel on the border between Nevada and California called the El Royale during the 1970s. Four mysterious strangers check in to hotel, which turns out not to be exactly as it seems. In spite of its cast, the film was a box office flop that actually lost money against it’s production budget. It runs for 2 hours and 21 minutes, and was written and directed by Drew Goddard, probably best known for his work on The Martian and World War Z.
Bad Times is one of the most underrated films available on streaming right now. I was somewhat sceptical going into it, if for no other reason than I figured a film with such a cast would’ve made big hay if it’d been any good. The fact that I basically hadn’t heard of it wasn’t encouraging, but my brother had seen and vouched for it, and the premise seemed interesting enough, so I elected to give it a try.
I was absolutely not disappointed. Bad Times is a completely captivating suspense thriller, artfully done, extremely well performed, and some of the strongest tension-playing I’ve seen in some time in a film like this.
I want to start with the performances, which were pretty consistently top-notch. Chris Hemsworth was extremely impressive, in spite of having had what couldn’t have been more than a half hour on screen. He was totally convincing, giving off every inch of manic, basket-case unpredictability his character demanded in what was undeniably a limited amount of time to show it in. He also managed to milk every inch of acceptable creepiness out of his relationship with Dakota Johnson’s sister, which was a difficult thing to navigate. The other two stand-outs were Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Ervio, who shared almost all of their time on screen together and developed a nice chemistry by the end of it. Bridges plays a good duality in this film, he sells the soft-hearted preacher when that’s what’s necessary, and the slowly senile criminal when that’s his character. Cynthia Ervio is probably the de facto lead of the film by the end of it, a mantle she responds to well. When you think about it, hers is the only character you’re ever really rooting for, which makes the film’s end as close as it comes to the best-case scenario, all things considered. The rest of the acting is decent to good, and their helped along the way by characters who’re only as fleshed out as they need to be. They don’t overload you with information in this film, they only ever really touch on the backstories of their characters. That can prove problematic in some places, and it has, but it only heightens the intrigue here, and does enough to give the characters clarity within the context of the film, if not in any larger context.
But this is a suspense film, and good performances will only get you so far. Luckily, Bad Times is packing a thoroughly interesting plot. If I had to lay criticism, it would be that some of the dangling ambiguities aren’t taken care of, making the end feel a little strange as far as the information that’s divulged. Until you get to that point, the whole tone of the film is constant uncertainty and dread. I don’t want to say too much, I want to avoid making this a spoiler review, but I’ll say that a combination of oddly psychological reveals and unforgiving treatment of some of the characters keeps you guessing at all times as to what is and isn’t as it seems, never really dragging in spite of a nearly 2-and-a-half hour runtime. There are some standout scenes in the film, four or five of them that I can think of off the top of my head, that work wonders with very unsettling tension that you just can’t take your eyes off of.
I think one reason behind the box office failure of this film might’ve been some of the stylistic unconventionalities that it employed. From a visual standpoint, there’s a lot going on with very solid, loud colours that I actually find cool but I can easily see interpreted as a little disorienting for some. It’s also got a seriously Motown-oriented soundtrack, much of it even delivered by Cynthia Ervio herself . Once again, I found it really cool, but I can see it not being everyone’s taste.
All in all, I have to put this down as one of the most underrated suspense thrillers streaming at the moment. It’s got intrigue, enough to keep you keenly interested throughout the film, makes extremely good use of tension, and happens to have a really cool premise. It felt a little bit like Murder on the Orient Express in a way, just less overdone and maybe more obtrusively sinister. And, in my opinion, more interesting in its plot (but that might have something to do with the overdone-ness of that film). Bad Times is a good time, and I think it deserves a much higher place of esteem. It’s currently streaming on Disney + Hotstar, and I’d recommend you give it a try.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 81/100 Aryamaan’s Score – 76/100