Thrills Add Up In Splashy "Bad Times At The El Royale"

Motown, murder, and misdirection reign supreme in Drew Goddard’s single-location thriller “Bad Times At The El Royale.” Like the writer-director’s 2012 horror-comedy “Cabin In The Woods,” “Bad Times” builds out on a foundation of secrecy and voyeurism, eventually leaping headlong into bloodshed. The talkier tendencies of Quentin Tarantino are an apt point of comparison here (some of the “Pulp Fiction” auteur’s stylistic proclivities come up, too). But Goddard is up to something a little bit different than, say, “The Hateful Eight.” Something more human.

First, a prologue set in 1960. Wide shot: a nervous man in a trench coat (Nick Offerman) hides a leather bag beneath the floorboards of a hotel room. A sudden shotgun blast and we jump forward a decade. Straddling the California-Nevada border, the seemingly deserted El Royale hotel still looms deceptively large among the Lake Tahoe pines, its impending guests harboring myriad mysteries of sex and death, money and madness. The body language of its lone employee, a nervous young man named Miles (Lewis Pullman), evinces trouble off the bat.

Four separate patrons fortuitously arrive at the same time: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), career backup singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and a twenty-something hippie named Emily (Dakota Johnson). At least two of them aren’t who they purport to be, but the filmmaker is interested in more than assumed identities and ulterior motives.

No, Goddard is hell-bent on booking us in this seedy lodge right along with his cast of colorful characters, employing a bevy of long shots, intersecting timelines, and diegetic music to achieve immersion. The cumulative effect is one of cinema’s more mesmeric murder mystery parties, evoking a particular Winston Churchill quote: “We shape our buildings. Afterwards, our buildings shape us.” Godspeed to the poor souls shaped by the El Royale.

In the casting department, only mustachioed cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) is a misstep. Hemsworth, so good as Marvel’s Thor and surprisingly funny in Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters,” is an odd fit for the pic’s villainous Charles Manson-like figure. The role calls for more of a Sam Rockwell or Walton Goggins. Hemsworth possesses the required charisma but in the end is too milquetoast to pull it off, failing the character’s most sinister underpinnings.

Happily, the piece’s two de facto leads (Father Flynn and Darlene) are note-perfect. Bridges gives a typically bracing performance, at once warm and surly, and Erivo wows in her film debut. The actress’ singing voice alone is enough to carry a few of the film’s slower passages. That she convincingly goes toe-to-toe with an actor as seasoned as Bridges makes Darlene all the more impactful as a character, the duo carrying the movie to its biggest twist of all – a sweetly sincere resolution.

“Bad Times” is occasionally self-indulgent to the extreme, its climactic scene dragging on before employing an extended flashback, only to drag on some more. Yet Goddard’s talent for atmosphere and characters earns these indulgences, improving on the surface-level pleasures of “Cabin In The Woods” in ways big and small. There’s a feeling of discovery here that’s increasingly rare in commercial filmmaking, driven by a confident filmmaker who trusts in his audience as much as he trusts in himself; a director who knows that not every little detail is going to work, but determined that together they will.

With the aid of an unusually talented cast, it all works very well.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 12, 2018
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Drew Goddard
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Nick Offerman
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity)