Director: Drew Goddard
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth
Running time: 141 minutes
1969. Four mysterious strangers check into the El Royale: a hotel located on the border of two neighbouring US states. However, it quickly becomes apparent that no-one – not even the place itself – is quite who they appear to be. As a result, a night of madness and murder is on the cards.
If you look up the word ‘unconventional’ in the feature film director’s dictionary, you’ll probably see a picture of Drew Goddard.
As someone who seems to have been around for an age already – helped in no small way by his numerous writing credits – it’s easy to forget that Bad Times at the El Royale comes as only Goddard’s second film outing as director. But, given that his directorial debut went by the name of The Cabin in the Woods – the loving, gloriously entertaining, ultra-meta hate letter to the horror genre – it’s safe to say his work has been anything but unmemorable. And, in continuing that reign of form with his latest film, Bad Times at the El Royale is, despite a dusting of Tarantino-flavoured seasoning, an enjoyably rebellious genre mash-up that rarely plays by the rules.
After a prologue generously doused in classic noir, Bad Times at the El Royale starts out like the opening line of an ill-conceived joke: a priest (Bridges), a vacuum salesman (Hamm), a soul singer (Erivo), and a grumpy Dakota Johnson walk into a hotel. A ‘hotel’ is perhaps underselling its uniqueness a tad. This is, more precisely, a “bistate establishment”; where customers have the option of staying in either Nevada or California – a dollar extra for the privilege of laying your head in the latter, mind. There, they meet the establishment’s only employee: a meek, bumbling adolescent by the name of Miles Miller (the impressive Pullman – son of Bill).
Given the writer/director’s appetite for the playful, it seems far from coincidental that each one of the El Royale’s gaggle of guests appears to have walked off the set of an entirely different film, from an entirely different genre. But if Goddard lays the foundations of his darkly comedic yarn early doors, then his punch line is afforded no such haste.
Instead, every one of his main players has their cards firmly glued to their chests (and barely enough change for the 25c coffee, too) and come carrying more baggage than simply the contents of their suitcases. Some appear oddly reticent; others suspiciously overfriendly; but all sufficiently dubious to help Goddard successfully dedicate his opening act to creating an aura of deliciously disconcerting distrust, where it becomes increasingly difficult to hang your hat of allegiance on anyone.
Characters slip in and out of likeability – between heroism and villainy – as they skulk about a setting that, by its very location, is divided in two. Once flirty and thriving, the El Royale now, aside from the odd guest (odd being the operative word here), houses only the shadow of its former self, and, of course, a few dark secrets to boot.
From there, over the course of a single night, Goddard slowly stirs his simmering narrative slow cooker before carefully serving up Bad Times’ revelations and reveals as a series of neatly packaged expositional episodes, each adding slightly more bite to the increasingly crowded broth. Just as unlikely partnerships are formed, lines of conflict are drawn as the playbook is aggressively torn up, patched together, and then shredded once more as the film prepares for its inevitably unpredictable climactic showdown.
It’s an enthralling ride that almost always chooses the narrative path less travelled, and conceals twists round every shady corner. However, such an inventive structural feast isn’t served without its fair share of unsavoury sides, though.
In its playfulness, Bad Times at the El Royale often feels disruptive and disjointed. Jumping between tenses and across timelines like a bunny rabbit rampantly re-enacting Vantage Point, the film’s middle section drags and sags to the beat of its own stop-start pace as it begins to bite off slightly more than it can chew. As a result, Bad Times ultimately falls victim to an indulgent and untrimmed run-time, and never quite succeeds in emitting the same scent of slick craftsmanship as, say, a Pulp Fiction, despite the valiant efforts of its shining star Cynthia Erivo, its open-shirted, scene-stealing Chris Hemsworth, and its toe-tapping soundtrack.
An entertainingly unpredictable romp that quite fittingly – given its emphasis on dual-identity – is both great, and, well, not so great.