Okay, I’m going to be honest. I’m not sure where to begin with Drew Goddard’s ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’. Even though he’s been busy working as a screenwriter and television director (most notably his screenplay for ‘The Martian’ and his work on ‘The Good Place’), this is his first feature film as writer and director since the beloved genre-bending horror ‘The Cabin in the Woods’. He’s always been an ambitious storyteller, but this new film takes his ambitions to a whole new level. Whatever your expectations were of this one, forget them, leave them in the car - you haven’t got a clue what’s coming.
One evening in 1969, a group of strangers all check in to the forgotten El Royale motel near Lake Tahoe. One half of the motel sits in California, the other in Nevada. The arrivals are a priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and a young woman, Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). After being checked in by the motel clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman), they all go to their seperate rooms. But each has a secret, and those secrets inevitably cause them to crash into one another with unexpected circumstances.
From the offset, ‘Bad Times’ is slick as hell. No longer having to deal with the rancid baggage of Joss Whedon that got in the way of ‘Cabin in the Woods’, Goddard’s skill and daring as both a writer and a director come into play from the very beginning, as he not only gives the characters room to establish themselves but sets all the pieces in motion for the devilish game of chess he’s about to play with us. Even just my synopsis reveals too many clues for what’s about to happen, because ‘Bad Times’ is one of those delicious Hollywood bangers that comes along very rarely that constantly subverts your expectations. No sooner do you think you’ve gotten a handle on it does it throw one hell of a curveball at you, and runs gleefully ahead while you struggle to catch up. Goddard’s initial premise feels comfortably familiar, almost like an Agatha Christie mystery, and his execution has all the spit, polish and cleverness of Hitchcock, but where ‘Cabin’ was a play on one genre, ‘Bad Times’ feels like a play on genre itself, a work that has the self-awareness of a Tarantino film without being distracted by its cleverness. The world Goddard and his team construct feels grounded yet strangely heightened, a version of the 60s that begins in nostalgia before slipping into harsh familiar reality. To say more would reveal too many of the surprises in the film, but within the confined framework of the motel, Goddard manages to create something that feels thematically epic, and it’s not long before you realise that this film is aiming far higher and has a lot more to say than you’d initially expect.
It also looks absolutely gorgeous, with ravishing cinematography from Seamus McGarvey that’s as lush as it is fetid, as playful as it is particular, and the gorgeous collective work of production designer Martin Whist and costume designer Danny Glicker. The world of the El Royale pops with colour and detail, again a fantasy of the 60s with touches of reality woven in. Goddard’s handling of the rhythm and tension is mostly spot on, helped enormously by the creative snap of editor Lisa Lassek. Long stretches of character development not only give room for the characters to grow, but allow for maximum effect when the film goes up another gear, and each major shift in tone feels earned. It’s a remarkable balancing act for Goddard, particularly when the film enters its final act and one more visitor arrives, one with a very specific historical heritage. I won’t say too much at risk of again spoiling it, but it’s the most dangerous moment the film attempts, and while it threatens to work against it initially, Goddard finds a way to once again earn its place, further cementing that the film has a lot more going on than you’d think.
This is pretty much its only major flaw though. ‘Bad Times’ is almost too ambitious, almost too big for its own good. You get the strong sense that there’s a major allegory at play here, an attempt to say something within the genre manipulation, but the sheer size and scope of it leaves you a little at sea. Then again, perhaps this is what Goddard wants. He began his career, not just working with Whedon, but with J.J. Abrams, and ‘Bad Times’ definitely fits within the puzzle box concept that such a part of Abrams’ aesthetic. ‘Bad Times’ feels like a puzzle box, one that demands multiple attempts to unlock all its hidden meanings, and this would be frustrating if the film itself weren’t so damn fun that you want to go back and have another crack at it.
No sooner do you think you’ve gotten a handle on it when it throws one hell of a curve ball at you, and runs gleefully ahead while you struggle to catch up.
The cast also seem to be having a blast playing on Goddard’s chess board. This is a very strong ensemble, with no one letting the team down and each committing to the role they play in the puzzle. Cynthia Erivo and Jeff Bridges are probably the highlights though - particularly Ervio, who ends up being the heart and centre of the film itself. She and Bridges have a beautiful chemistry together, and many of their scenes are the strongest. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Chris Hemsworth, one of the cast members pushed significantly in the publicity, but I’ll let you find out for yourself. The surprise and shock are kinda worth it.
If you’re hoping to find a nice pithy answer to what kind of film ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. The truth is, I’m not even sure what this damn film is. Is it just a great little genre play on the trope of a group of strangers forced together under unusual circumstances, or is it something much bigger? You’ll just have to find out for yourself. What I can tell you though is that it’s one hell of a good time. It’s slick, funny, nasty, gnarled, snappy and clever, will hold you on the edge of your seat, have you laugh in disbelief and run rings around you till your dizzy with delight. This is one of those quiet little gems that comes along very rarely, but is so worth it when you find them.