Bad Times at the El Royale
2018, R, 141 min. Directed by Drew Goddard. Starring Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Oct. 12, 2018
If you’re someone who feels that every major release has been watered down to its point of broadest possible appeal, then you might take some solace in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, a stylish neo-noir that does its best to blend vintage Warner Bros. style with Nineties-era blockbuster exuberance. It turns out Jean-Luc Godard was wrong: All you need for a good movie is a girl, a gun, and a bistate establishment.
The year is 1969 and the El Royale has seen better days. The hotel, which straddles the state lines of Nevada and California, was once a hot spot for Hollywood celebrities and Vegas socialites. Now, though, it opens its doors to whomever might pass through. Tonight it will call itself home to a vacuum salesman (Hamm), a road-tripping priest (Bridges), an aspiring singer (Erivo), and a mysterious femme fatale (Johnson), all of whom have reasons for staying at the El Royale that they’re unwilling to reveal. As the secrets of both hotel and guests are revealed, this group of strangers finds that trusting one another may just be what gets them through the night alive.
Given how thoroughly Goddard deconstructed the horror genre in his directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods, the straightforward nature of Bad Times at the El Royale comes as something of a surprise. The film does jump around its timeline a little – showing single events from the perspective of multiple characters – but the film as a whole is driven more by production design and performance than Goddard’s script. You could spend the film nitpicking any number of plot points; character affectations are sprinkled throughout the script in obvious attempts to land emotional beats in the film’s big finale, and bits of backstory end up as narrative dead ends, often serving only to create an artificial aura of mystery around the whole affair.
If you’re looking for a thrilling whodunit, there’s nothing in this film that hasn’t been done – and done better – a dozen times before. Then again, who really cares if the story of Bad Times at the El Royale is derivative as long as the rest of it works? Aiming for style over substance is only a problem when you miss, and Goddard and his crew have created an absolutely gorgeous bit of throwback noir. The hotel itself is an inspired piece of set design: a landmark of postwar opulence that manages to encompass three decades’ worth of detective movie aesthetics in its various design elements. Goddard knows his setting is the star and moves each character through the bedrooms and back halls in a series of engrossing tracking shots. If you’re a fan of symmetrical framing, you’re in for quite the treat.
Audiences will undoubtedly show up for the big names – and the prospect of Hemsworth at his most sexual – but Bad Times at the El Royale works best when it’s a simple trust exercise between Erivo’s Sweet and Bridges’ Flynn. Erivo is the real star of the show; had Goddard’s film been little more than the Tony Award winner rehearsing her audition pieces in a dusty hotel room, it still would’ve featured charm to spare. The addition of Bridges as another sympathetic outlaw past his prime – nothing we haven’t seen him play before but nothing we wouldn’t pay to see him play again – gives the two actors a delightful chemistry amidst all the bloodshed. Like an inspired cover of a Motown classic, Bad Times at the El Royale reminds us that taking something familiar and giving it your own twist can sometimes create something fun.