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Five Cent Cine At Home: Bad Times at The El Royale

Bad Times Get Worse

There is reason to believe that 2018’s “Bad Times” could have been a very good film. The contained, isolated setting (think “The Shining”) is worthy: a stylish mid-century motel, once a haven for gamblers and the Rat Pack, and the site, as it turns out, of perverse activity. The motel is empty as the film opens, its gambling license gone, its only employee the meek Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman).

Time will reveal that there’s more to Miles than meets the eye, and the same could be said of three of the four guests, unknown to each other, who arrive on the same day in 1966. Laramie Seymour Sullivan/Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm) appears to be a smooth-talking vacuum cleaner sales manager; Father Daniel Flynn/Dock O’Kelly (Jeff Bridges) appears to be a humble priest; Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a tough-talking hippie-chick, appears to be alone and later appears to be a kidnapper. Only Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is essentially what she seems to be—a talented soul singer — and Darlene’s centeredness marks her as the film’s uncompromised ethical core.

Two additional characters — Emily’s younger sister, Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny) and Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, of Avenger Thor fame) also are what they seem to be: Rose is the proverbial “bad seed,” Billy a vicious, manipulative, Manson-like cult guru with a pretty face and Baywatch body. Significantly, only Billy lacks a back story (indeed, even the El Royale has a back story); he’s so evil we don’t want to risk the empathy that understanding his back story might induce.

Like Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 ‘Pulp Fiction,’ it employs time as a creative device, moving between past and present in clever and revealing ways.

“Bad Times” has other virtues. Like Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 “Pulp Fiction,” it employs time as a creative device, moving between past and present in clever and revealing ways. Space is important, because the motel, like the guests, isn’t what it seems to be. The use of surveillance as a plot device has current resonance. Music is critical, too; tunes played on a prominent 50s-style jukebox ground the production in time, and Darlene’s lovely, Whitney Houston-like voice (and song selections) emphasizes her moral authority. Erivo is a British Broadway star who was deservedly nominated for several awards for her performance in the film.

“Bad Times” even has a theme, an idea that runs through it from beginning to end. That theme is choice, and it’s introduced early on, when Miles explains to the new arrivals that the El Royale sits on the border between California and Nevada, and that the guests can choose a room in either state—“hope and opportunity to the East, warmth and sunshine to the West”–descriptions that seem to reverse the state stereotypes and ironize the idea of informed choice. Of the guests, only two want a particular room, and one of them chooses the wrong one (Nevada, Room 4), with fateful consequences. The jukebox also serves as a metaphor for choice.

Later, we learn that Darlene’s back story includes a moral decision that continues to shape her career.

Later, we learn that Darlene’s back story includes a moral decision that continues to shape her career, and that Father Flynn, while no angel, once demonstrated the capacity for moral choice. In real time, Broadbeck’s decision, to defy his powerful boss and go to the aid of someone in distress, ends “badly.” Curiously, the same could be said of Emily, who outwardly appears hardened and unscrupulous. And Miles (convincingly portrayed by Pullman) displays enormous personal courage in transcending his horrific Vietnam War experience. The ensemble cast is good at drawing out the theme, but it’s the lesser-known actors – Erivo and Pullman – who rise above the rest.

“Bad Times” is director and writer Drew Goddard’s second feature — his first was the 2011 horror film “Cabin in the Woods” — and he’s a veteran of TV horror. His background may be one reason the film’s virtues are overwhelmed, and the theme of choice corrupted, in a final act that takes up nearly a third of the 141-minute running time. The agent of its demise is the none-too-bright nor charismatic cult leader Billy, who arrives at the hotel as a fully armed and escorted, self-proclaimed advocate of moral choice, though his idea of morality has already been revealed to be at best simplistic, at worst stupid and vile. At the El Royale, Billy defines choice as something like Russian roulette. His teen lover Rose joins in the fun. Not everyone dies, but there’s enough killing to vitiate the strengths and subtleties of “Bad Times”—that is, to damage what could have been a very good film.

Date: 2018

Director: Drew Goddard

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman, Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny and Chris Hemsworth.

Runtime: 141 minutes

Bad Times at The El Royale  ★★ ½ (out of four stars)

Available: Streaming by subscription services, Cinemax, HBO through Amazon; for Purchase, Amazon Video, Redbox, and elsewhere; and more – see JustWatch here.

With movie theaters closed, Five Cent Cine is shifting gears. “2 film critics” will continue our usual reviewing schedule of about 3 movies per month, now labeled Five Cent Cine At Home, with all of those films available streaming or for rent or purchase. Each review will list (at the top) the source(s) for you to access the film in your own living room or bedroom.

In addition, we’ll be posting a “Streamer of the Week,” a review from our catalogue (more than 110 reviews dating to mid-2016) of a film available for streaming—a way to revisit a film you’ve already seen or to decide you would enjoy.

Also see reviews on…

Bad Education

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Manchester by the Sea

Until The Birds Return


Two Popes

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Lighthouse

Eighth Grade

The Traitor (Il Traditore)

Free Solo

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sorry to Bother You


Hidden Figures

Ford v Ferrari

Captain Fantastic

First Cow


Ordinary Love

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Uncut Gems

Les Misérables

The Last Black Man in San Francisco



Little Women

Marriage Story

Queen & Slim

The Irishman


Cold Brook

Jojo Rabbit

Pain & Glory ( Dolor y Gloria)



Downton Abbey

Ad Astra

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

The Goldfinch

Good Boys

Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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