Bad Times at the El Royale, 2018.
Directed by Drew Goddard.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, and Nick Offerman.
Circa 1968, several strangers, most with a secret to bury, meet by chance at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one night, everyone will show their true colours – before everything goes to hell.
Drew Goddard’s subversive horror The Cabin in the Woods (2012) was a refreshing new take on the tired teen horror genre. His follow up Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t quite as self-referential and inventive, but is still an energetic, violent and intriguing film.
On a stormy night in the late 60s an eclectic mix of guests arrive at the El Royale hotel. Once a glamourous playground for the rich and famous, it’s now nearly abandoned. Built across the Nevada and California state lines it’s clear from the outside that what we see isn’t the full picture. Stuck at the El Royale this night is aspiring singer Doreen (Erivo), vacuum salesman Laramie (Hamm), Father Flynn (Bridges) and femme fatale Emily (Johnson). In a series of title cards we find out each person’s story and how they ended up in the middle of nowhere.
After some initial light humour the plot twists as Laramie finds a secret spy corridor behind the rooms, observing the guests through a two way mirror. Goddard directs an exquisite one shot across all the rooms with Cynthia Erivo singing a beautiful rendition of The Isley Brothers “This old heart of mine”. The sound production is haunting and the set up works extremely well.
As the plot unravels there is Tarantino-esque violence, weighty dialogue and some missteps along the way. The film feels like the El Royale itself: split down the middle. The first half is methodically plotted and bursts with tension, the second feels like a rush to find some kind of satisfying conclusion. Whilst the ending does work, Goddard’s choice to bring in an outside character and up the stakes doesn’t feel right compared to the tone of the rest of the film. Whilst it’s never dull, it’s detrimental to an otherwise outstanding film.
The performances are what drives Bad Times at the El Royale. Cynthia Erivo is the standout, delivering an exceptional performance as Doreen. Her singing moves the film along and you root for her character so much. Her savage verbal takedown of cult leader Billy Lee (Hemsworth) is a searing indictment of male entitlement and a real fist pump moment. Supporting her is the ever watchable Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm who isn’t in the film enough and proves once again that he’s the most underused actor in Hollywood. Dakota Johnson delivers the femme fatale character well and Lewis Pullman as the lost hotel manager Miles is compelling. The only weak link is Hemsworth. Although not miscast as Billy Lee – a hedonistic Charles Manson style cult leader – it feels like there’s something missing from his performance. He quietly intimidates, but he arrives too late in the film and isn’t given much to do. His presence feels shoehorned in.
Bad Times at the El Royale doesn’t break as much new ground as his previous film, but Goddard clearly enjoys playing with his audiences expectations and pulling the rug out from underneath them. It is funny, unsettling, violent and exceptional.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★