Drew Goddard, tragically, hasn’t directed a movie since his mind-bending horror effort The Cabin in the Woods. That, as it turns out, is an absolute crime, as his latest effort, Bad Times at the El Royale, is purely entertaining from top to bottom and is the exact kind of thing those who complain of a lack of originality with studio movies, yet still want something with blockbuster thrills, need to see. This movie is dripping with cool and is one of the most entertaining and creative thrillers of recent memory.
Bad Times at the El Royale centers on Seven strangers who cross paths at a once-great hotel on the border between Nevada and California. As we come to learn, each of these people has a secret to keep and they may or may not be who they appear. Over the course of one memorable and remarkable night, these secrets will come to light and everything will go to hell in ways nobody could have possibly imagined upon checking into the unassuming hotel.
This movie takes on the “strangers stuck together in a single location” trope that has been implemented by quite a few filmmakers over the years. Drew Goddard uses it effectively and it’s not a gimmick in this particular case. He displays a lot of imagination in his craft and this story works better as a result of this storytelling device. The only time we leave the seedy, glitzy and undoubtedly chic (at least on the surface) hotel is when we’re learning of the various characters’ backstories. Goddard also uses a familiar narrative device to accomplish this, but these segments make for some of the best bits overall.
No doubt, this movie is going to draw a lot of comparisons to the work of Quentin Tarantino. And it should. Specifically, movies like Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight, which also use a similar narrative device. Bad Times at the El Royale accomplishes a Tarantino level of intrigue, but swaps out some of the grit for a little more flash and J.J. Abrams-esque blockbuster apparel. Goddard further proves here that he has a knack for crowd-pleasing, just as he’s done in the past with his screenwriting on movies like The Martian. But in the driver’s seat, when given the opportunity, the man can do something special, as evidenced here.
This serves something of a slow burn, but the payoff is well worth it. Bad Times at the El Royale unfolds its mystery to viewers as though they’ve just had a huge puzzle dumped out on the table in front of them and they didn’t even get to see the image on the box to help them out in solving it. Slowly but surely, the picture comes into focus and once the image is in full view, the fun really starts. It’s also set during the early 1970s. Aside from setting it against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Richard Nixon presidency, and in addition to giving it a distinctly rad look, there are no modern technological conveniences at play to aid these characters when things boil over. No cell phones. No GPS. Nothing of the like. That choice adds a charm to the movie.
It’s hard to imagine a more watchable gathering of performers. This cast is littered with people who are naturally captivating and doing things we rarely get to see them do. Jon Hamm gets something fun to do here, Chris Hemsworth turns in a performance nobody would ever expect from him, Dakota Johnson further distances herself from the Fifty Shades image and Jeff Bridges, like a very fine wine, proves he’s only getting better with age, as he turns in a killer performance. Nick Offerman also shows up and when is that ever a bad thing? It’s a stacked cast that is miraculously and delightfully overshadowed by some newcomers. Lewis Pullman, son of Bill Pullman, isn’t just riding his father’s coattails. The younger Pullman turns in a layered and excellent performance here. Keep an eye on this kid. But it’s Cynthia Erivo, who audiences likely aren’t familiar with yet, who steals the show. Erivo exudes confidence, poise and that indescribable, gravitational “it” quality that certain performers have. Make no mistake; this is just the start for her.
Thrilling, twisty and an out-and-out blast, Bad Times at the El Royale is a dream popcorn flick that is, as a welcome change, not related to a pre-existing franchise. It’s hard not to recognize the 20th Century Fox logo ahead of this movie and mourn the impending Disney merger just a bit. These are the kinds of movies we may lose one the Mouse House takes over. We need to enjoy it while we can and moviegoers who beg for originally should reward this movie with box office dollars.