As both a writer and director, Drew Goddard certainly loves and brings passion to the genres he’s explored. He took a monster movie and told it through found footage in Cloverfield’s screenplay, upended the tropes of the horror film with The Cabin in the Woods, and brought an earnestness and sense of wonder to his script for The Martian that seemed fresh amidst the dystopian directions sci-fi has taken in recent years.
With Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard has fashioned a neo-noirish crime thriller that is wholly his own original idea yet steeped in the trademarks of the genre. The title establishment is a rundown hotel in the Lake Tahoe area, literally situated on the border between California and Nevada, that has long since seen better days and is the exact kind of place you’d expect an ensemble of shady characters to show up and cause trouble.
And sure enough, one by one they all walk in: First we meet the traveling, oily vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), and he’s followed in quick succession by slightly befuddled man of the cloth Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), sincere soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and sharp-tongued hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). These initial guests are attended to by sole El Royale employee Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), a combination of bellhop and manager in an ill-fitting suit.
These five characters will eventually be joined by two more, a teenage girl named Rose (Cailie Spaeny) and, in the movie’s final third, by an enigmatic and vaguely threatening man named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), but how they arrive and what all seven of them are doing there is something perhaps best left to the viewer to discover.
That’s the thing about Bad Times at the El Royale: We really can’t go into any further details of the plot without spoiling any of the twists and turns that Goddard has in store. But suffice to say that hardly anyone on the screen is what they first appear to be, and the characters do weave in and out of each other’s storylines in a few surprising ways.
Yet, at the same time, Bad Times at the El Royale follows a fairly conventional path within the “xx strangers come together in a certain location” template and relies too much upon a stop-and-start structure–that includes a generous amount of flashbacks–to deliver information that one needs to make the character’s motivations and connections (or lack thereof) clear.
What helps the film overcome the script’s forced mechanics is the cast. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and the interaction between the always excellent Bridges and the genuinely sympathetic Erivo is a pleasure to watch. Other standouts include Pullman (the son of actor Bill Pullman) as the tormented Miles and Spaeny as the inscrutable Rose. And then there’s Hemsworth sporting an American accent, a surfer haircut, and an air of malevolent good humor. He’s a man most of us know on the screen as the God of Thunder, yet here gives a very different and even dangerously sexy performance.
As for Goddard, his second outing as a director shows him to be confident behind the camera, filling the anamorphic frame with lots of period details (the hotel itself, largely built as one complete set, is very much a character in the film and nicely fleshed out) and keeping the visuals moving even when he stops for yet another flashback. While the director is on solid footing with his actors, his atmosphere and his setting, he could be a bit harder on himself as a writer by cutting back on the jumps in time and also trimming the somewhat unnecessarily long climax. It would have helped what ends up seeming like a very long film move a little quicker than it does.
The comparison that comes to mind is Reservoir Dogs (with which it shares a somewhat similar structure), but Bad Times doesn’t quite have the violent sizzle or snappy dialogue of Tarantino’s early classic. Nevertheless, Bad Times at the El Royale is still a fun watch; the actors are all clearly enjoying themselves and their collaboration with each other, even while there’s just enough of a sense of mystery about the story’s ultimate denouement to keep the viewer hooked.
There’s also a certain charm to the El Royale itself, a relic of a time in America when people did much more traveling by car and roadside hotels held a mysterious and adventurous allure. While the movie’s references to its period (Nixon has just been elected and there are allusions to the Manson murders) don’t add a whole lot to the narrative, the idea of a group of very different people coming together in random fashion at a spot like the El Royale is still a strangely fascinating one.
Bad Times at the El Royale is out in theaters Friday, Oct. 12.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye