Bad Times at the El Royale is a deliciously entertaining, if sometimes slow, love letter to film noir from director Drew Goddard elevated by the cast.
Bad Times at the El Royale is the second feature-length effort both written and directed by Drew Goddard, who got his start and rose to fame in TV - on projects including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias and Lost. Goddard made his directorial debut with the meta horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods in 2012, which he additionally co-wrote with Joss Whedon. The film proved to be both a solid entry in the horror lexicon, as well as a deconstruction of the genre's most famous tropes, all wrapped up in a cleverly executed movie. While Goddard has spent much of the time since Cabin in the Woods writing for film and TV - Matt Damon's The Martian and Marvel's Daredevil - he now returns with another feature he wrote and directed. Bad Times at the El Royale is a deliciously entertaining, if sometimes slow, love letter to film noir from director Drew Goddard elevated by the cast.
Bad Times at the El Royale takes place over the course of one night at the motel called the El Royale that sits on the border between Nevada and California. When struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives looking for a room, she runs across vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Though Laramie tells Darlene and Father Flynn that the El Royale was once a bustling and successful getaway, it's clear from the motel's only concierge - the young Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) - that the lodge's heydays are long past. Further, few of those who arrive at the El Royale on this fateful night are who they appear to be, including Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and her sister Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny).
However, the motel itself isn't what it appears to be either, as one of the guests discovers a secret hallway that allows the El Royale's concierge to watch and listen to what goes on in each of the rooms without the knowledge of those inside. Over the course of the night, with the movie broken down into different perspectives and vignettes that put the focus on each of the rooms and its inhabitants, the guests of the El Royale cross paths with each other as they attempt to keep their own intentions secret. Then, everything is made more complicated by charismatic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who arrives at the El Royale looking for something that was taken from him. As the various paths of the characters intersect and come to a head while staying at the El Royale, it remains to be seen who - if any of them - will live through the night to see the light of the next day.
Goddard follows up his directorial debut with another clever deconstruction of a classic film genre, this time tackling that of film noir and more modern neo-noir movies. Set against the backdrop of 1960s America, a time in which politics were particularly heightened due to the ongoing Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement, Bad Times at the El Royale taps into the era to great effect. Though the movie is firmly rooted in the '60s, with elements of espionage and political intrigue, it also deftly mirrors the politics of today. In fact, one particular line in the script so perfectly captures the cyclical nature of the power men wield in America that it's difficult not to cheer on the character delivering it (a stunningly compelling Erivo as Darlene). Altogether, Goddard has written and directed a feat of genre film that's both a love letter to noir and a subversion of expectations about whom to which the story of Bad Times truly belongs.
The structure of Bad Times at the El Royale additionally draws inspiration from classic films, with the two-hour and 20 minute movie shifting perspective between the various inhabitants of the motel as it focuses on each room. The shifting perspectives allows for viewers to see certain scenes through the eyes of two - or sometimes more - characters, upending what the audience knows at any given time about the guests. Along with the main narrative focused on one night at the El Royale, Bad Times includes brief vignettes to formative moments in each of the characters' journeys, sometimes providing key information about how they arrived at the motel. These vignettes are necessary to adding depth to the characters, and in some cases setting up particular plot beats just before they happen, but the broken up nature of the film's structure sometimes slows down the pace. Coupled with Goddard's tendency to write long, character-focused scenes, Bad Times at the El Royale occasionally drags, causing the viewer to really feel the movie's longer runtime - but these moments are few and far between.
To be certain, the cast of Bad Times will keep audiences captivated even when the action and drama of the film slow down to a crawl. Hollywood veterans Bridges and Hamm are perhaps the most widely recognizable members of the cast, and they offer undoubtedly solid turns in their particular roles, bringing the necessary amount of gravitas and charm, respectively, to the film. Further, Hemsworth is a standout, walking a line between menace and charisma as the cult leader Billy Lee in a way that's both horrifying and delightful. Johnson and Spaeny are also compelling as sisters, while Pullman brings a surprising amount of depth to the concierge. However, Bad Times at the El Royale is truly Erivo's movie. Though the actress may not be well known in Hollywood, she's a veteran of the stage with a Tony Award for her role in The Color Purple musical. Now, Erivo brings her extensive talents to the big screen - including her singing voice - in order to elevate an already talented cast as the truly enthralling Darlene.
Ultimately, all aspects of Bad Times at the El Royale - the script, the cast, the directing - comes together for a twisty, exciting mystery-thriller. Goddard has returned with an entertaining and well-crafted follow-up to The Cabin in the Woods, proving himself to have a uniquely exceptional voice with Bad Times at the El Royale. Further, Goddard's talent behind the camera helps each member of the ensemble cast to stand out in their own way, though Erivo still stands above the rest, and lends her voice to an already solid soundtrack for an incredibly compelling musical element to Bad Times. Though some scenes of the movie are on the slower side, Goddard knows how to build tension, causing the moments when that tension releases to be that much more deliciously entertaining.
As a result, Bad Times as the El Royale is a must-see for fans of Goddard's work, particularly The Cabin in the Woods, and will no doubt entertain those who were already intrigued by the film's marketing. Because of the twisty nature of the movie, it may be best for audience members to go into Bad Times knowing as little possible - and, afterward, to not to think too hard on the political bread crumbs that are sprinkled throughout the movie but are never truly capitalized or explored too much. Altogether, Goddard has crafted a fun and compelling noir-style thriller that may not interest everyone, but will undoubtedly meet or exceed the expectations of those who are even only remotely interested in seeing Bad Times at the El Royale, making it certainly worth checking out.
Bad Times at the El Royale is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 140 minutes and is rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity.
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- Bad Times At The El Royale (2018) release date: Oct 12, 2018