Sporting a brilliant ensemble cast, Drew Goddard’s throwback to the neo-noir crime films of Tarantino and Rodriguez is that rare example that actually works.
It’s the sort of plot that’s been around for so long, Hollywood was essentially built on it: a bunch of ne’er do well strangers end up in a remote location. Money is involved. Things get worse. And while Bad Times at the El Royale may come across as your standard double-cross, things get worse film, everything comes together (from acting to directing to writing to the sort of set decoration that really makes you want to plan a trip to the El Royale itself) to form an unpredictable and fantastic experience, serving as a solid follow-up to Drew Goddard’s cult classic Cabin in the Woods.
The titular El Royale, a hotel as uniquely gorgeous as its name is linguistically redundant, was formerly a destination for the well to do jet-setters of Lake Tahoe. Nestled on the Nevada-California border, guests have the choice of staying in the gambling-legal Nevada side or the drinking-legal California side. However, the hotel has now seen better days: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and aspiring lounge singer Darlene Sweet (the astoundingly talented Cynthia Erivo) both arrive to a relatively empty hotel, run solely by the drug-addicted, but Midwestern-ly wholesome, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). As more guests roll in, it quickly becomes apparent that nearly no one in the hotel is at all what they seem to be. And, as is tradition, things get worse.
Quite honestly, Bad Times at the El Royale lives or dies on the chemistry between Bridges and Erivo, and the two deliver it in spades. From the very moment that they appear on screen together, they act like a pair of binary stars, shifting energy between each other and playing off the smallest moments shared between the two. When they first meet, their conversation is based on a series of dad-joke level chats about “never having been in Nevada” and asking, “how’s the weather in California?” It’s the kind of dialogue that walks the line between charming and eye-rolling, but Bridges and Erivo make the exchange so organic that you can’t help but love them both immediately. Plus, there’s Erivo’s beautiful singing (for which she won a Tony in 2016 for The Color Purple), which literally stops the movie in its tracks on multiple occasions. When so many movies use comedy to break the tension (which this movie does as well, with great success), it is wonderful for Bad Times at the El Royale to use Darlene Sweet’s voice as an oasis amidst the chaos of the El Royale.
To be fair, their inspired performances extend to the rest of the wonderful ensemble cast. Jon Hamm continues his streak of brilliance as a vacuum cleaner salesman with a secret, Dakota Johnson is heartbreaking as a Southern badass, Cailee Spaeny nails her brainwashed aloofness as an impressionable cult member, and Pullman is just such a god damn sweet summer child in a whirlwind of deceit. And, without spoiling too much, Chris Hemsworth’s turn as the Manson-adjacent cult leader Billy Lee is filled with scene-stealing creepiness. The Aussie god’s effortless balance of his own signature charisma and his shark-like intensity is so effortless that he very quickly becomes the most terrifying part of the film. It’s the sort of performance you don’t typically find in such a likable actor – here’s hoping he gets more chances to flex his acting muscles. Y’know, as much as his regular muscles.
Of course, so much of Bad Times at the El Royale‘s brilliance is brought out by Goddard’s masterful writing and directing. Goddard has such a skill for balancing comedy and tragedy (a skill he honed from his early days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), that even when the movie makes you laugh, it’s never quite enough to push away the feeling of impending dread. While El Royale absolutely stands on its own as a Goddard original, the film’s pulp setting wears its throwback influences firmly on its sleeve. From the Tarantino-esque title cards to the gleeful nihilism typical of the Coen Brothers (Burn After Reading feels like a particular influence), this is the sort of film that draws on inspiration, rather than mimicry. It revels in its own chaos, not interesting in presenting a morality play made of flawed characters, but an exploration of what people are willing to risk their lives for.
It’s a real Goddard-esque touch to make the inciting incident not a moment of greed or selfishness, but the insatiable urge to do the right thing. Much like in Cabin, his characters make the sorts of choices the audience would make. When faced with clear good, they take that route. When forced to their last option, they choose to take it. It’s the sort of honest writing that makes Goddard’s future as a writer/director very exciting.
Bad Times at the El Royale checks into theaters Friday, October 5th.