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Wikipedia Description: “Bad Times at the El Royale is a 2018 neo-noir thriller film written, produced, and directed by Drew Goddard. Set in 1969, the plot follows seven strangers each hiding dark secrets, who come to a head one night in a shady hotel on the California-Nevada border.”
I’d really loved Drew Goddard’s previous directorial effort, The Cabin in the Woods (2011), and was excited to see a solo follow-up. Less so when I saw the trailer for his second feature. The trailer presented a dry-looking set-up with stereotypical characters that seemed to lead to obvious story beats, so I wasn’t hugely excited to see it.
I didn’t rush to the cinema, plonked it firmly to my to-see-one-day list, and forgot about it.
Why I took it off the list
I was in the mood for some pure escapism, so browsing through recent films the Rotten Tomatoes description for this film caught my attention once again.
Promising ‘pure popcorn thrills’ and remembering that the trailer had looked stylish if nothing else, I decided to take a look.
Spoilers? Nope! I may include spoilers in some reviews but not in this one. If I do include spoilers, I’ll give you fair warning.
Review of Bad Times at the El Royale
I should have learned from The Cabin in the Woods not to expect the trailer to in any way resemble the full extent of what I would finally see in a Drew Goddard film. Nevertheless, I was hoodwinked by the trailer and caught off-guard by the quickly moving plot and character developments of Bad Times.
It’s set in the 60s, in an off-kilter hotel long past its glory days, curiously located right on the border between California and Nevada. In fact, the state line runs right through the hotel, cutting each half into liquor-serving and non-liquor-serving mini-sections.
The introductions of the characters come incredibly quickly, one after the other, and we barely get any establishing information, just how they introduce themselves to others when they encounter the ever-expanding group of guests.
Cynthia Ervio (who I ignorantly have not seen in any of the many things she has done before but is incredible here) plays young black singer Darlene, a woman whose skin color and gender has made her wary of discriminatory barbs.
She finds plenty of those of at the hands of Laramie (Jon Hamm), a sleazy salesman who first assumes she is a maid. She politely corrects him. In fact, she’s very polite to everyone, at least until she senses the judgment in the comments coming her way.
Darlene is especially polite to Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), whose dog collar seems to inspire a kind of respect and reverence, although she still keeps a friendly distance.
They all wait for the bumbling and nervy Miles (Lewis Pullman,) to peep out of reception and assign them their rooms, though he is quick to advise father Flynn that this is no place for a man of the cloth.
Thus the ominous tension begins, and from this point on, the film feels like it could go anywhere. At various points in the film, I felt a strong Twilight Zone-style vibe creeping in pointing to a devious twist ending, as in Cabin in the Woods.
Whether or not that happens I won’t spoil, but I will say that the film is surprisingly paced and consistently surprising, doling out the answer to one cryptic reveal after another before you even have time to question it.
As for the cast, Bridges is incredible as the conflicted ‘father’, and the script is great in showing how the other characters expect him to respond, as well as subverting the expectations of the sage advice and absolution they all expect to hear.
As noted, Ervio is fantastic, expertly expressing a wide range of hidden depths and emotional responses, and Pullman is equally effective as a character with surprising layers.
Dakota Johnson and Chris Hemsworth also pop in for appearances, with their characters adding another familiar element to the period social commentary going on under the surface.
But at the end of the day though, Bridges really does steal the show as a character who should be a cliché but who constantly challenges your perception
In general, I really liked the film and appreciated how it ties everything together. Although I thought I was going into something different, I really enjoyed it. But then, I probably should have expected that reaction from a Drew Goddard film.
What I absolutely loved was the design of the hotel, almost exactly like a cross between Bates Motel and The Overlook from The Shining (1980). The El Royale is marked by a fierce criss-cross of grills and patterned wallpaper, giving an almost otherworldly vibe of entrapment that adds to the feeling that maybe the characters really have wandered into limbo.
Although set on an interstate line far away from the Pacific Northwest, the characters and setting of Bad Times feel like they could be hanging out somewhere on the outskirts of Twin Peaks, and that’s a pretty cool achievement in itself.
Final score: 8/10
Worth checking out?
Yes, this is a fun crowd-pleaser disguised as a period drama, featuring some fantastic performances. Probably one of the only occasions I would recommend watching the trailer beforehand, as I think it adds to the surprise of actually discovering what the film is about.
Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
Written and Directed by Drew Goddard
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Ervio, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth
Check out my next review to learn my thoughts on a recent trippy sci-fi drama.