Bad Times at El Royale review Jeff Bridges Cynthia ErivoYear: 2018
Director(s): Drew Goddard
Writer(s): Drew Goddard
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Rating: R
35mm, Color, 141 mins

Synopsis: Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at the El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past (Source)

Just like Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale is another smashing subversion of genre and expectation. And just like the director’s previous film, this one is also very hard to talk about without spoiling. What I can say, is that Goddard’s latest is a worthy followup that expands and sharpens his talents. Armed with lots of style and interlocking stories, Goddard transcends the confines of a single setting plot, offering pulpy noir that’s as brutal as it is fascinating. Add to this an eclectic ensemble who brings their best, and this thing is an undeniable breath of fresh air. It’s the kind of lean, mean film that studios just don’t make enough of anymore.

Somewhere near Lake Tahoe, is the El Royale. The hotel is bisected by the California and Nevada border, and guests are able to remain in either state. In its heyday, the hotel entertained the biggest celebrities and politicians, offering luxurious amenities and lavishly decorated rooms. Now, the hotel is on its last legs, and barely sees any visitors. One day, a priest (Jeff Daniels), a singer between gigs (Cynthia Erivo), two women with a mysterious connection (Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny) and a salesman (Jon Hamm) all converge at the hotel. Though this rogue’s gallery couldn’t be more different from one another, they’re all tied together by the secrets that they keep. Over the course of one night, however, they learn that all of their secrets pale in comparison to the ones that the El Royale is hiding.

Whereas Goddard deconstructed genre in his previous film, his latest finds him deconstructing character. Underneath the film’s fractured and unique narrative, is the idea that each person is a story of their own. We may not know where someone has been or where they’re going, but everyone has lived a life full of highs and lows. And everyone is just trying to do their best to cope with the choices they’ve made. With this at the core of the film, Goddard connects and repels his characters in surprising ways. Everyone’s motives and secrets collide as the film’s twisty narrative folds in on itself and splinters into pieces. When everything eventually comes together, the film hones in on some very blunt human truths, exploring the mercies that we allow ourselves and each other. At the end of the day, Goddard’s film isn’t about the typical good and evil that props up most crime dramas, but about how his characters live, thrive or die in the grey.

Bad Times at El Royale review Chris HemsworthDespite the film’s rather large ensemble, there isn’t really a weak link here. Without going too deep, everyone pulls their own weight and embodies up the film’s tapestry of multi-layered revelations. Just as the film is toying with perception, so too does its cast transform the more we learn about them. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo are personal faves here, both acting almost like the film’s anchors and each fraught with personal demons in the most affecting way. Dakota Johnson brings some great energy to the film, while Chris Hemsworth is unlike anything we’ve ever seen of him before. Lewis Pullman’s mysterious concierge is another delight, turning in one of the film’s more emotional dilemmas.

Bad Times at the El Royale is fun and flashy, but carries an understated heft to it. At its core, Goddard’s voyeuristic noir shines a light on the way we present ourselves to those around us, and who we are when no one is looking. While most of the film could’ve come off as gimmicky, Goddard has created something in service to his characters and their desperation. Though it’s patient with its reveals, the film comes together like clockwork. Everything is paid off in the most satisfying way, amounting to one of the year’s most colorfully original films.

SG