Back in 2012 Drew Goddard burst onto the film scene, writing and directing the meta infused horror-comedy Cabin In The Woods. The intervening last few years have been rather kind to the writer. He helped bring Daredevil to Netflix. He got nominated for an Oscar, for best adapted screenplay. Above all he was able to shake off the shroud of being part of J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon’s teams. Connections like that aren’t necessarily a bad thing necessarily. More so highlights Goddard growing into his own. He returns to the directors chair with Bad Times At The El Royale. A striking and confidently twisty, turvy pulp infused film that owes much to the past. While being filled with some of todays most bankable stars. Mind you, not everything about it is perfect.
The El Royale is a picture of 60’s travel iconography. Sitting on the dividing line between California and Nevada, it was once the toast of two states. This little forgotten hideaway has seen better days and fallen almost into disarray. Only “almost” thanks to the tireless efforts of the bellboy and only staff member, Miles (Lewis Pullman). He seems surprised to see a number of guests at the same time, forced to inform them that “some rooms aren’t suitable”. While also informing them that only the main building is available in the current season. Even though it looks like at it’s busiest, those rooms would remain empty. A shame, given how striking the interior is. Unless that’s just retro-chic appreciation, seeping through.
Every character at the El Royale harbors a secret. Or a past they’re desperately trying to run away from. Boisterous vacuum salesman Laramie Seymor Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is an agency man. Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) is trying to distance herself from charismatic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), after taking something important to him. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has come hoping to collect on a job done over a decade ago. The sunny exterior they show to each other hides a difficult history that brought them to this place. No one is what they seem, even after the layers start to get peeled back.
Except for Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) that is. In a sea of troubled folk, she’s simply in the right place, but at the wrong time. A good hearted individual with a steely resolve. Because while the other lodgers chose to fall in with a rough and tumble life, that’s unfortunately the only one she grew up around. Erivo is simply fantastic in the role, standing toe to toe with that big names that surround her, but never in a showy way. There’s no mistake that she keeps getting cast in more and more high profile films.
Everyone seems like they’re having a blast here. Johnson doesn’t get a lot to do, but shows more range than the 50 Shades series allowed here. Hamm is his normal self, which most have either bought into by now, or are fine without. Bridges is the one who surprises the most, out of the established film stars. Father Flynn has a lot going on behind his eyes and while the rest of Bad Times does deal with pulp or humor, Bridges gets saddled with the most serious part. Other would be sure to play things too broad, but shows why he is one of his generations best actors.
If there is a complaint here, it’s that some people will be quick to point out an echo of Tarantino. Yet that comparison is merely surface level commentating. Bad Times story unfolds over a series of chapters. Each one focuses on a different room, telling the tale of its occupant. The interlocking pieces twist and turn replaying the events of the evening in a slightly different light, as well as the past that lead them to the hideaway. That’s where the comparison ends The difference is how Goddard goes about laying out his narrative. Whereas Tarantino’s works often often are semi-beholden to the movies of other great filmmakers, Goddard grounds his piece in a specific time and place. The style of the El Royale is distinctly of the 60’s. From the color scheme, vending appliances, oddly artistic fireplaces and a grand jukebox filled with perfectly picked soul music.
Once Hemsworth arrives, dancing in the rain, in the 3rd act, Bad Times takes a turn for the for the conventional. Following a more or less linear path towards the finish, it loses some of the sparkle that helped inform the earlier portions. Some of the blame falls upon Billy Lee himself. While Hemsworth tries to make him both menacing and humorous, shimmying across the lobby, he never feels truly threatening. Even stranger is that Goddard hints this may be on purpose. A rousing exchange between Erivo and Hemsworth can’t be construed any other way. If that is indeed the case, it’s something that needed to be rewritten. Or excised entirely, along with 15 or so minutes from the already bloated 140 minute run time.
Regardless of minor clunkiness, Bad Times proves to be a thoroughly entertaining watch. Pulpy fun of this caliber usually gets lost in the release shuffle, or worse, relegated to VOD status. Flexing whatever clout he may have amassed in the last few years, Goddard was able to lure in a-list talent, garnering the film a major release. Though it isn’t likely to set the world on fire, Bad Times at the El Royale is exactly the reason people rush to the cinema. In the hopes of forgetting about the world for a few hours, while being thrilled and plastering a smile across audiences faces. Definitely one worth checking out.