Within the cinematic cosmos currently, the decision to produce a film with few characters yet many plot complexities has proven to be a common practice. Yet, whether this choice is made to heighten the depth of the film or simply increase run-time minutes remains a mystery. With his new film of Bad Times at the El Royale, Drew Goddard navigates this notion, all while including jump-scare thrills, wine bottle spills and plenty of chills.
Set in the 1960’s, a time dominated by the Vietnam War and American civil rights movement, the film follows the gradual arrival of seven strangers at the famous but disturbing El Royale Hotel. As each guest receives the key to their room, the internal personality and secrets of the various characters as well as the hotel start to become unlocked, prompting behaviour that shifts from being sympathetic to suspicious, volatile to violent. Within the 2-hour 21-minute run-time, we as an audience travel along the divides that split the hotel apart, good from bad, faith from doubt, and depict how crossing the border can ultimately become dangerous. The El Royale itself is split apart with a domineering state border line through its core, separating the “Silver State” of Nevada from the paradisal California. With a cast inclusive of Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo and Chris Hemsworth, Bad Times explodes in both positive and negative ways, arguably represented by the end madness of the intricate storyline.
To pick the overall genre for Bad Times to fit into serves as a challenge. Walking out of the cinema upon viewing the film, the main term I could hear gradually recurring inside my mind was thriller. Yet, as I journeyed home and reminisced about the windy path I had just travelled on for two hours, the task of labelling the film with genre became a question of not what? but now how many? Thankfully, Bad Times confidently embraced this challenge of diverging genres. With the cinematography thrill-driven, plot line crime-driven and character representations both comedically and dramatically-driven, the film successfully balanced this multitude of genres, providing a captivating and enticing experience. Whether this could have all been achieved with a shorter run-time does remain a valid question, but who wants to leave the cosiness of the cinema and escape into the icy evening so quickly?
In today’s film industry, the director has the choice to either make the film’s cinematography unnoticeable or noticeable with both options providing distinct advantages and potential consequences. Inclusive of camera movement, angle and depth of field, cinematography serves as the backbone to depicting what we as audiences see and consequently judge on screen. For Goddard, the decision to extend the film’s cinematography beyond the classical conventions (causing it to become significantly noticeable) acted as a prime factor in bolstering this film to become something visually spectacular. While long shots of the bewildering yet beautiful environment would transcend into abrupt and sharp close-ups, point of view shots became a prominent technique in evoking suspense and thrills. Complementing this, Goddard effectively incorporated the tracking shot as well as long takes to heighten sentiments of anticipation and anxiety for the audience. Put simply, the cinematography made me feel uncomfortable during Bad Times…but I strongly admired it for this.
Although most of the roads did lead to success in Bad Times, the problematic conundrum revolving around the impact of the headline character did make its appearance. And we have seen this happen before: Where was Jared Leto in Suicide Squad? Why did Sleeping Beauty have to sleep so much? For Goddard, the choice for the headline character was our own Aussie hero, Chris Hemsworth, an individual who has triumphantly transcended from the dramas of Ramsay Street to the even larger dramas of Asgard. To critique Hemsworth’s acting in Bad Times would be a mistake, for he portrayed his damaged yet artfully arrogant character in a subtle yet believable way. Instead, the problem lay in his insertion within the film and how his appearance after a solid ninety minutes of carefully constructed and eyebrow-raising mystery jarred the progression of the story line. Almost as if a reset button had been hit, Hemsworth’s character set the movement of the story backwards a few paces, causing for the motivations of the other six characters to be abruptly put on hold and the finale sequence to consequently appear out of nowhere in order to address this abandonment. Ultimately, we are left to question why Mr Hemsworth couldn’t arrive to the hotel on time with the other individuals? He could have even nabbed the honeymoon suite for himself!
Contradictory to its name, Bad Times at the El Royale served up a plentiful amount of great times for its audience members. Goddard is to be particularly credited for his work in portraying a captivating storyline through complex characters and a rich setting. And while critique can be made on the lengthy runtime and character insertion into the plot, this film has managed to adopt its own uniqueness, setting it apart from films of the same nature. While we wouldn’t necessarily hope for a sequel in this case, we can still hope for more films that explore the intricacies of temptation and survival in glamorous surroundings – where characters let their barriers down and, in this case, swing from the chandelier.