In an alternate universe, Bad Times at the El Royale was roundly recognized as one of the best films of 2018. It exploded at the box office as audiences flocked to see a twisty, compelling mystery and were additionally treated to a surprisingly emotional character study. They left satisfied and told all their friends, and as Oscar season rolled around it was impossible to ignore Jeff Bridges giving one of the best and most nuanced performances of his career, and relative newcomer Cynthia Erivo was rightly hailed for her tremendous breakout performance in what’s essentially the co-lead role.
Unfortunately, we live in the worst timeline.
Bad Times at the El Royale opened on October 12th of last year to swell reviews, but only managed to hit $31 million worldwide. In hindsight, the film was just swallowed up by bigger, higher profile films at the box office that month (Venom, A Star Is Born, Halloween) and audiences with a limited amount to spend on movies per month went for known IP rather than an original story. Which is a shame, because Bad Times at the El Royale is certainly one of the best films of 2018 and was a glorious theatrical experience.
Written and directed by Drew Goddard, the wholly original film serves as his follow-up to his feature directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods. But whereas that movie was a delightful meta-commentary on the horror genre, Bad Times at the El Royale is a deeper, more complicated, and more mature piece of work.
Set in 1969, the story takes place at a once-famous hotel that has since been left behind. One by one, a series of characters show up to check in, and all fit a certain stereotype of the film noir genre. There’s the priest (Bridges), the singer (Erivo), the hippie (Dakota Johnson), and the company man (Jon Hamm) to begin with, but after the crackerjack first act, Goddard turns the noir genre on its head, and no one (and nothing) is exactly who they appear to be.
While mysteries abound and there are delightful twists and turns, Goddard brilliantly anchors the entire story in emotion and character. It’s so effective that you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat in the climactic sequence, sure, but also don’t be surprised if you start tearing up. Bridges gives a layered, heartbreaking performance as the film’s co-lead alongside Erivo’s similarly complex yet distinct singer. Goddard embraces the socio-political turmoil of 1969, layering the film with nods to not only the racial divide at the time, but also the headbutting between the hippie generation and the establishment. Indeed, Bad Times at the El Royale is a film rich with theme, exploring issues relating to voyeurism, identity, and even faith, religion, and guilt. It’s a meal of a movie that never feels preachy, as Goddard always keeps the proceedings entertaining and compelling on a base level.
Music is essentially a character in the film unto itself, and the story is peppered with songs from the 60s that morph progressively into the sounds that would populate the 1970s as the film wears on. Erivo delivers stunning vocal performances captured live in-camera, and speaking of which, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is absolutely jaw-dropping. The shot composition and color palette is dripping with symbolism and metaphor, but from a pure technical perspective there are a couple of long takes in the film that are just stunning.
So is the film worth owning on 4K Blu-ray? That’s what you’ve come here for after all, and if you can’t tell from my intense enthusiasm the answer is an emphatic yes. The tremendous technical achievements of Goddard and his team are even more impressive as viewed through a pristine 4K presentation, and the color palette in particular is a sight to behold. The sound, too, is tremendous, which is a relief given how significant a role music plays in the film.
Unfortunately there’s no audio commentary track from Goddard, which is a massive bummer. I would have loved to hear Goddard go deep on the making of the film and its themes, but alas we’ll have to settle for an above-average featurette that digs into that a bit. Indeed, the 4K disc’s only real special feature is a 28-minute documentary that chronicles the making of the film. This is more in-depth than your average EPK feature as it shows how they built the motel set on a massive soundstage, how and why specific colors were chosen for the set and costume design, and how Goddard kept theme at the forefront when crafting the film. You’ll also get to hear from McGarvey as he discusses the film’s cinematography, although if you’re left wanting even more in that respect check out my deep-dive interview with the DP about his work on the movie.
If you’re curious about Bad Times at the El Royale and haven’t seen it, it’s worth a blind buy on 4K. I found my second viewing experience to be even richer knowing what twists and turns were coming, and the performances are even more impressive when you know the secrets that lie within each character. This one has massive rewatchability, so if you’ve already seen and enjoyed the film, it’s worth owning. An audio commentary would have been terrific, and the lack of significant bonus features is a shame, but this movie is so good you don’t really even need added incentive to own it beyond just being able to watch it over and over again.
I have no doubt that within due time, Bad Times at the El Royale will be rightly recognized as a tremendous cinematic achievement. Until then, be one of the first in the cool kids’ club and preach the good word.
Bad Times at the El Royale is currently available on Digital HD, 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD.