“Bad Times at the El Royale,” believe it or not, is a pretty good time
In his 2012 directorial debut, Drew Goddard quite literally deconstructed the horror genre in his dextrous and clever “The Cabin in the Woods.” The film plays on many tropes familiar to the genre, all culminating in a perplexing final act that defies all logic and expectation but still manages to entertain.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is Goddard’s follow-up to this cult hit, and with a cast of A-List actors (including returning collaborator Chris Hemsworth), cements himself as a competent director with a penchant for taking aim at genre cliches and using them against the audience in an entertaining manner.
Set somewhere ambiguously between the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Bad Times” follows a collection of travellers as they check-in to the once prominent El Royale motel, which was built symmetrically along the California-Nevada state line ─ there is literally a red line separating the two sides, where the Nevada side is full of amenities like slot machines, and the price of rooms is humorously slightly higher in California for no real reason. The El Royale has seen the likes of many celebrities in its past but, while still maintaining its beauty, has fallen from grace for unspecified reasons. Perhaps the gimmick of spending the night in Nevada but sleeping in California ran its course.
The El Royale as a set piece is beautiful. It makes you wonder if all of the shabby motels you’ll often pass travelling westward were all like this in their prime, instead of the dilapidated magnets for vice they are often portrayed as now. As mentioned before, the decor is completely different depending on what side of the motel you choose to stay on. It wears its gimmick on its shoulders, which is ultimately part of its charm.
Among those the viewer is initially introduced to includes Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a drifter with a penchant for singing; Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) a mysterious priest (which is never a good omen); Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a boisterous vacuum salesman; Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a combative young woman whose only interactions with the others are volatile; and Miles (Lewis Pullman), the hapless clerk and only employee of the El Royale.
In the vein of films like Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” the motivations of this motley crew are certainly more dubious than they all let on. “Bad Times” is not a whodunit, but relies more on sheer coincidence and the absurdity of these circumstances than anything else. They are all going somewhere, running from someone, or looking for something,but the fates of these individuals all become hopelessly intertwined.
The bar was set pretty high for the actors given the pedigree of the performers involved, and everybody proved worthy. Erivo’s character was more or less an audience surrogate for the majority of the film, and the chemistry between her and Bridges’s Father Flynn is one of the feature’s highlights, although their scenes tend to drag. Hamm has a sort of dual performance, which viewers will certainly appreciate given the context in which his part of the tale unfolds.
While we slowly learn more about this large cast of characters, we learn more about the motel as well, which we learn has just as much of a tainted past as its inhabitants. It is difficult to say too much more about the film without getting into spoiler territory, but it is worth mentioning that the El Royale is not the only set piece. While the El Royale acts a sort of catalyst for the events that transpire over the course of the film, there are a handful of other set pieces that provide viewers with context on these characters. All of these set pieces ─ which range from a small town’s main street during heist to a Vietnam war-ravaged battlefield ─ feel true to their respective genres, and further paint Goddard as a detail-oriented filmmaker.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a strong follow-up to Goddard’s only other major directing credit,” but suffers a handful of lulls throughout. The introductions of the characters take almost 45 minutes on their own, and some of the character-building sprinkled throughout often feels unnecessary. While this is perhaps a necessary evil when dealing with such an excellent cast, it is one of the film’s few weaknesses. The film is ultimately a roller-coaster ride full of self aware jokes, a number of twists and a red herring or two. If you are willing to sit through about 45 minutes of nothing, then you will certainly have a good time.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” will be released in theaters Friday, October 12
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