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Movies & TV

11th Oct 2023

5 years on, this twisty Tarantino-esque crime thriller deserves a second chance

Stephen Porzio

bad times at the el royale

It had big stars, good reviews, style to spare and a cool period setting, so why did it not make bank at the box office?

Back in October of 2018, Bad Times at the El Royale was released in cinemas – a movie which felt like it had a lot of the ingredients to be a big success.

It was the second film from writer-director Drew Goddard, who seven years previously had made the truly great and inventive hit 2012 horror The Cabin in the Woods.

And for his long-awaited sophomore effort, he merged a hot original screenplay – which he described as an homage to crime fiction, film noir and ’60s culture – with an ace cast.

Set in 1969, the movie centres around a group of strangers who find themselves staying at the El Royale, a once popular but now basically deserted hotel along the California-Nevada border.

These include what appear to be a Catholic priest (Oscar winner Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo), a travelling salesman (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm), two hippie sisters (Cailee Spaeny and Dakota Johnson) and the hotel’s sole desk clerk (Lewis Pullman).

However, it soon becomes clear that each of these people has a dark past and that there is more to some then meets the eye.

Over the course of one fateful night at the hotel, secrets are revealed which kickstart a chain of events that causes the characters to intersect with each other in dark and surprising ways.

5 years ago, Bad Times at the El Royale should have been a hit

With its ensemble cast, its twisty time shuffling screenplay and its plot that makes reference to ’60s concerns like the aftermath of the Vietnam war, political conspiracies and violent cults (Chris Hemsworth makes a late-in-the-game scene-stealing appearance as a Charles Manson-esque figure), Bad Times at the El Royale is a crime thriller that earns its 141 minute runtime.

Indeed, the movie’s epic scope – along with its beautiful period decor and highly stylised direction – is all the more impressive given its relatively low (at least for a mainstream film) $32 million budget.

Godard explained at the time of its release that he and his cast took pay cuts in order to keep costs down so that the studio would allow them to take more storytelling risks.

el royale

Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, he explained:

“I have learned [the studio] will let you be bold if you keep your costs down, and I am okay with that deal. That’s a fair deal.

“The reason we got to do [The Cabin in the Woods] the way we did Cabin was because it didn’t cost a lot. I knew with this one, we also didn’t want it to cost a lot.

“It was the sort of thing where we are all taking pay cuts. I could say to the actors: ‘This is what it is. I want it to be bold. I don’t want to have to cut out all the things that are bananas in this movie.’

“The tradeoff is we’ve got to keep the costs down. When we went to the actors, they sort of knew that going in. They knew we were all — and it’s true of me too — we’re all taking pay cuts to get to do something different.”

While Bad Times at the El Royale has its flaws – Johnson and Spaeny’s sister characters get short shrift and the film’s constant flashing backwards and forwards through time and between several characters can sometimes cause a bit of tonal whiplash – its nevertheless a very entertaining movie that should have appealed to fans of Quentin Tarantino’s work, particularly Pulp Fiction and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

That said, while it earned solid reviews – it currently holds a 75% Rotten Tomatoes score – it failed to recoup its already quite small budget at the box office, only garnering $31.9 million.

As for the reasons for the low box office returns, there are several potential culprits.

Bad Times at the El Royale is based on an original story, as opposed to much of Hollywood’s output which is based on pre-existing big name intellectual property (IP).

bad times at the el royale

Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale

As The Ringer noted in an article published around the crime thriller’s release, studios rely on sequels, prequels and reboots because it makes their films easier to sell to audiences.

To use 2018’s highest grossing movie as an example, if you like Marvel comic books and Marvel films, you most likely did not need much convincing to see Avengers: Infinity War.

This poses a marketing challenge for original stories, particularly ones like Bad Times at the El Royale – which feature some major plot twists.

As The Ringer summed up:

“The trailers and posters have to tantalise enough and provide enough information about a given film to convince a prospective moviegoer to purchase a ticket, while also keeping the most important developments close to the vest in order to retain the movie’s suspense and quality.

“Keep things too obscured, no one sees the film; give too much away, no one enjoys the film.”

It seems as if not enough cinema goers were convinced to see Bad Times at the El Royale, particularly as it was released around the same time as the blockbusters A Star is Born, Halloween (2018) and Venom – all based on previous IP.

The hope now for original films that were well-liked by critics but were not seen by enough people in theatres is that they find a second life on streaming.

Indeed, Bad Times at the El Royale is currently available to watch in Ireland and the UK on Disney+ where it is waiting to be discovered.

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