With Bad Times at the El Royale, writer/director Drew Goddard has crafted a thriller so satisfying in the way in unfolds that revealing anything much beyond what's shown in the trailer would spoil the experience. In a culture filled with recycled narratives, and trailers that are little more than abbreviated versions of the film they’re only supposed to tease, Bad Times at the El Royale provides welcome unpredictability, and we’d be jerks to ruin that for you.
That said, what you see in the trailer is pretty much what you get: Seven strangers arrive at a hotel in Lake Tahoe, each with his or her own significant-to-deadly baggage. It’s the late 1960s, and the hotel straddles the border between California and Nevada; the proprietors attempt to make each section distinct, but really they're two halves of one whole (something that's important later). At first the film progresses with a series of vignettes not unlike Kill Bill. Several characters get their backstories fleshed out through flashback and others through glimpses of what they do in the privacy of their own rooms. But as the story progresses, Goddard leans more heavily on non-linear storytelling that only increases the frequency of the twists, executed with decent precision. Everyone’s hiding something, and the reveals either surprise in content or delivery. There are some predictable story elements, but by and large this is one of the more successfully surprising films of 2018.
And as colorful as the film may seem, don’t be fooled: Bad Times at the El Royale is very much a thriller. The prismatic storytelling and early misdirection keep you off-balance from the very beginning, and things get more unnerving as the first half of the film unfolds. As the hotel patrons discover (or simply investigate) the unique nature of their surroundings, Goddard employs a variety of tools to keep the tone offbeat and genuinely eerie. The sound design in particular is responsible for this general ambience, as is the upbeat Motown soundtrack that skillfully employs the relatively old trick of inserting major notes in a film set in a minor key.
One area in which the film falls down a bit is in its execution of such a complex ensemble story. There’s one mystery that doesn’t quite get solved to satisfaction, and the climax involving Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee feels a little out of balance and melodramatic. On the flip side, his arrival brings some satisfying cohesion, and reveals an unexpectedly sophisticated religious undercurrent. That’s not to say the story is anything resembling preachy, but more that it upends some very familiar tropes and gives the movie a philosophical edge. And to be honest, Hemsworth is a big part of that. Billy Lee is a far more complex character than we’ve seen him execute in recent memory, which is kind of a double-edged sword, considering he has nothing but tentpole blockbusters coming up for the next few years.
It should be said too that in a movie so dependent on its actors, there’s not a single weak performance (hopefully Dakota Johnson's gun-slinging hippie will go a long way toward ending her association with Shades of Grey). But the real standout is Cynthia Erivo (Chewing Gum), whose singer Darlene Sweet spends most of the movie quietly being the smartest and most endearing person in the room, and whose largely internal struggle Erivo showcases with minimal dialogue and impressive skill. She also gets a speech near the end that’s worth the price of admission for anyone, but especially feminists, and especially now.
Goddard is as good at culling masterful work from his actors as he is telling a story and. at the end of the day, that’s why Bad Times at the El Royale works so well. It's not as strange as The Martian or quite as ambitious as Cabin in the Woods, but it's still ridiculously well-executed. His ability to work with such a variety of stylistic elements from humor to hyper-violence to musicality to symbolism and actually create something cohesive is what makes him such an exciting filmmaker. The narrative and style are refreshingly original without resorting to something intentionally confusing and that's far too rare in today's landscape.
Written and directed by Drew Goddard, Bad Times at the El Royale stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman and Chris Hemsworth. The film opens Oct. 5.