A near-abandoned hotel. Motown. Surveillance. Vietnam anxiety. A cult. Seven strangers. None of these things belong together, but they all act to set the scene of Bad Times At The El Royale, the latest from writer/director Drew Goddard.
Goddard is one of those filmmakers who has amassed an enviable cult following from work on both TV and film, but it’s also true that movie buffs will just be eager to see the follow-up to 2012’s horror-comedy Cabin In The Woods. Then there’s the spectacular cast, all of which means that Bad Times At The El Royale has caught a lot of attention with its trailers as well as strong word of mouth.
A group of strangers check into the El Royale – a run-down hotel that straddles the state line between California and Nevada – and it soon becomes apparent that the guests, as well as the hotel itself, have secrets. There’s Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), a singer just passing through, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a sleazy salesman, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest, standoffish hippy Emily (Dakota Johnson), and sole staff member Miles (Lewis Pullman).
Cynthia Erivo owns the film as Darlene, and I’m sure the casting directors are very pleased that this performance from the actress beat her second film outing in the upcoming Widows to the screen. There are times later in the running time when her gorgeous voice is overused, but for the most part this Tony-award winning star provides the mood-setting soundtrack and the beating heart of the film with her terrific ability to tell a story through musical moments.
We really know very little about Darlene, and that’s the way it should be. We know enough for her to be our entry point into the story, and can happily watch along as she uncovers the many, many secrets of those around her. Sure to be compared to Tarantino for its structural flourishes, this film would not work without the warmth and charm of its performances.
Lost-esque flashbacks fill in some of the backstory for characters, but these are used sparingly so as not to hold the audience’s hand. As with any mystery film, the fun is in the discovery.
This is the most likeable Bridges has been in a while, as he plays Father Flynn with the kind of inner turmoil that could only be felt by a fundamentally good man with a dark past. Then there’s Hemsworth, who struts and swaggers his way through the film, stealing every scene he’s in, open shirt or no open shirt. The actor previously worked with Goddard in those halcyon days pre-MCU, and so it’s a hoot to see him give everything to a completely different role here.
And the starry cast really is the highlight of a film like this, as we wonder which A-lister is going to get offed first, or who might suddenly switch into an entirely different mode once their true identity is revealed. There’s some very camp notes of Agatha Christie in here, with a thick layer of film noir and a dash of haunted hotel horror. A mixed bag, yes, but one that remains entertaining for a huge chunk of its running time.
The twists in El Royale are never as mind-bending or jarring as they were in Cabin In The Woods, but they are more frequent. The same sense of fun is present here, as Goddard plays with genres, time and character archetypes like a kid in a candy store, but that joy can’t last for the almost two and a half hour running time. Things drag, suspense dissipates, and revelations become more obvious.
Which is a shame, because a bit of a nip and tuck probably would have made Bad Times At The El Royale much more memorable. As it stands, the third act drags terribly, and all the previous good stuff starts to fade from view after a while.
Things are introduced then never resolved, characters are dispatched with little to no fanfare, and what to think of certain actions is left up to the viewer. Bad Times At The El Royale is a weird, wholly original and incredibly ambitious follow-up from Goddard, and one that feels gloriously out of place in Hollywood’s current climate. If you want something different as we enter awards season, El Royale is it.
Bad Times At The El Royale is in UK cinemas now.