Bad Times at the El Royale - Review

Drew Goddard’s return is extremely welcome.

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After tearing up the horror genre with 2011’s Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard’s voice had been established. Bad Times at the El Royale attempts to invigorate the thriller genre, and it does it surprisingly well. Excellent lead performances and convincing writing have resulted in an authentic second feature. It feels like a passion project, even though it’s a story we’ve seen before. Several strangers end up in the same place by coincidence and something occurs to tie them all together, but Goddard’s script infuses the perfect amount of backstory and tension to make the old story feel new, without indulging in one character too much or another too little. It’s an engaging and fresh experience, and if it weren’t for its ending, it would be one of the best films of the year.

There are aspects of Bad Times at the El Royale that feel tired. The oddball cast of characters, the shifting perspectives, the corny writing. Jon Hamm plays a government agent masquerading as a vacuum salesman, in one of the goofiest roles in the film, channeling his inner used car salesman in an almost unbearable performance. We realize later that it was only a face, but he dies too soon for there to be any real payoff, and instead we are left with a half baked character who could have been interesting, but is instead remembered through some of the schlockiest scenes in the film. He and Chris Hemsworth’s character, Billy Lee the cult leader, suffer from poor explanation. When Billy Lee enters the titular hotel, tensions are at an all time high. The thrill comes from having no idea what he is capable of, and the film tries to answer that question. In an extended flashback, we learn all about his mission statement and violent tendencies. Again, things we’ve seen before. Where Bad Times at the El Royale had an opportunity to create a deliciously evil and humorous villain, it settles for average. Billy Lee is not unlike an unremarkable Bond villain: Easy to defeat, and too predictable. Chris Hemsworth brings his A game to the role, but other than a hilariously twisted dancing scene, he is given little to work with. This is where Bad Times hits a brick wall, and morphs into a predictable thriller with a textbook happy ending. This only stands out because the rest of the film does so well to avoid cliches, mostly through a consistently thrilling script. The ending is out of place. It smells of a studio decision, likely attempting to compensate for the dark and possibly confusing storyline.

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Aside from Hemsworth and Hamm, the cast receives substantial backstory and opportunity for character moments. The highlights are undoubtedly Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo, who play a bank robber posing as a priest and a pop singer respectively. The two form an alliance early on after an astonishing scene involving a wine bottle and whiskey, which I won’t spoil here. They are both underdogs, stuck in a crummy situation with a small chance of escape, and for that they are the heroes of the story. Luckily, the two actors work well together, Erivo in particular through a series of musical asides and emotional moments. Bridges’s character is hard boiled, confused, and lonely, much like his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. His forgetful nature keeps the audience guessing as to what his intentions at the El Royale may be, and when they are made clear there is a wonderful moment of clarity as we realize what he has to lose. The rest of the cast are pleasant additions, but the real star of Bad Times is the script. It twists unexpectedly, and makes archetypes feel new again, primarily through heavy use of flashback and shifting perspectives. It’s a spider web of a story, and one that could have become confusing quickly, but intelligent visual cues and simple direction assure that doesn’t happen. The hotel itself is a sight to behold, and functions as a character. The secrets held underneath its rooms are shocking, and wildly creative. Drew Goddard’s direction does well to spotlight music, lighting, and costumes as signifiers to the time period, as well as the personalities of the characters. He sets a brisk pace from the start, and once things start to tumble they rarely let up. It’s a film at war with itself; a brilliant first half counteracted by a rigidly formulaic second, but it has me enticed for whatever Goddard does next.