Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale.
This niche thriller is full of style and substance, with standout performances by Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman and Jeff Bridges.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a throwback noir thriller that went largely under the radar this weekend. That’s a shame since director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, The Good Place) and a superb cast delivered a tightly crafted gem. This tale of five strangers brought together by ill fate on a stormy night calls back to some of the best films in the genre, while adding stylistic flourishes. Weaving together multiple perspectives of the dark events, Bad Times at the El Royale plays with narrative and identity in clever ways that make for a tense and engaging experience.
Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).
Three strangers arrive at the nearly derelict El Royale hotel: a blustering businessman (John Hamm), an aspiring soul singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a forgetful priest (Jeff Bridges). After finally summoning a nervous desk clerk (Lewis Pullman), they haggle over rooms as they each seem to have an eye on particular locations. They are soon joined by a fiery loner (Dakota Johnson) who deflects any questions about her identity. As they settle in for the night and the rain pours down, they each discover sinister aspects to the hotel, as well as revealing their own dire reasons for being there.
The cast in Bad Times at the El Royale is fantastic. I enjoyed every performance, especially since most of the players were new to me. John Hamm is known for Mad Men, which I haven’t seen. Dakota Johnson is mostly known for the awful 50 Shades movies. Cynthia Erivo is a phenom of the small stage, but is essentially making her movie debut this year with Bad Times and the upcoming Widows. Lewis Pullman is likewise a fresh face in the movie business. The only role I didn’t love was Chris Hemsworth as a charismatic cult leader; he’s solid and frightening, but not given quite enough time or development to stand out.
You may have noticed an omission: Jeff Bridges. He is simply fantastic in this film, bringing real pathos and nuance to a character who is struggling with dementia. Bridges turns in a restrained performance that is moving but not maudlin. He especially shines thanks to great chemistry with Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo. Pullman comes on late thanks to a fantastic backstory and dynamic with Bridges. Erivo is a knockout, easily the most engaging character in the film, and she has a complicated relationship to Bridge’s character that elevates the second act. All in all, the film soars on great performances and smart writing.
Director Drew Goddard had shown that he can manipulate narrative to create tension in a horror, as his first film The Cabin in the Woods has become an instant classic of modern horror. In El Royale, he shows he’s just as adept at using that manipulation in the noir film genre. Strangers arriving at a sinister location on a dark and stormy night is about as classic a setup as you can get. Likewise, unreliable eye witnesses are another staple of the genre. What Goddard does that is fresh is weave in tropes of both classic spy films and hotel horror films to create a subtext of danger and mistrust.
Bad Times doesn’t skimp on blood and guts, and the hotel wouldn’t feel out of place to Norman Bates. A TV broadcast in the lobby drip feeds a constant sense of paranoia about the Vietnam/Nixon era, mixed with some outbreaks of Helter Skelter-style cult murders in the area. Coupled with a setting that is constantly revealing disturbing facts about itself, you get a film that creates and maintains several layers of tension and foreboding.
What Did He Know, When Did He Know It?
One pitfall to the genre that Goddard mostly avoids is a break down in causality. When a narrative shifts perspective frequently and replays events from another angle, it is tempting to revise things in order to shock or misdirect. If a script is too cute, it winds up creating events that only make sense in reverse: the person has to know the future or events that they could not have possibly seen, but which the audience has already been shown. There are just one or two instances in Bad Times at the El Royale where I felt that the characters were operating based on info they shouldn’t have had access to. Mostly Goddard keeps a tight ship and uses reveals that recast the story in smart and exciting ways.
Good Times at the El Royale.
Drew Goddard has crafted another near-masterpiece with Bad Times at the El Royale. It is a clever, well-paced, and thoroughly well acted thriller. As he did with The Cabin in the Woods, he strikes a nice balance between embracing genre conventions and subverting them for effect. While this tends to be a genre with niche appeal, I heartily recommend it to lovers of film. The craftsmanship is top notch; the very first scene builds tension towards a moment that is inevitable from a genre standpoint but is teased and twisted through exciting use of sound and cinematography. It was a delight to see a favorite genre of mine feel both fresh and familiar. Check it out!