Bad Times at the El Royale is Drew Goddard’s second directorial feature after the career-defining Cabin in the Woods. Here, he tackles the mystery-thriller genre and attempts to subvert the genre’s tropes and characters in a similar manner as Cabin in the Woods, but with differing results.
Set in 1969, the film follows seven strangers who happen to find themselves in a shady novelty hotel that sits on the border between Nevada and California. The strangers — a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Jon Hamm), and a hippie gangster (Dakota Johnson) — soon discover that they are amongst dangerous people, in an even more dangerous hotel.
At first glance, the film has a nearly identical set up to Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods, where a group of horror archetypes find themselves trapped in a single location at the mercy of some unseen people who are spying on them. However, Goddard’s first feature had the benefit of focusing on a genre with tropes and characters that audiences are familiar with. So, subverting their expectations and flipping everything they know on their head is an easy enough task. Here, Goddard struggles to balance the many tropes and characters that are often found in the mystery-thriller genre and what we end up with is a film that is as divided as the hotel.
The main problem here is that Goddard is torn between exploring the secrets of the El Royale versus the secrets of each of the guests. Goddard carefully combs through each of the characters’ backstories prior to them stepping into the El Royale, which takes time away from the hotel and the impending danger from shirtless cult leader, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). The stories of the seven strangers are lengthy and could have easily been condensed into three lines of dialogue. The 2hr 21min long film feels excruciatingly longer because of all the many backstories.
For instance, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the young concierge at the hotel, could have remained a mystery – yet we are given a snippet of his past that doesn’t even include how he got to work for the mysterious management group of the hotel. Emily (Johnson) and Rose’s (Cailee Sapeny) lengthy backstory serves the purpose of explaining why sexy cult leader Billy Lee is on his way to the hotel. However, this angle should have been a central focus of the film, especially as their actions serve as the catalyst for much of the action in the film.
Goddard perhaps should have focused on keeping each of the strangers mysterious, only to carefully reveal who they are whilst the characters deal with their current predicament, in lieu of exploring the situations that led them to their fateful encounter with Billy Lee at the El Royale. The backstories should have been reserved for the characters that were most integral to the main situation. Another consequence of giving every character a backstory is that there are plot threads that are left unattended, and questions remain unanswered.
The pacing and narrative structure of the film may be disappointing, but it does not distract from the stunning technical aspects of the film. The craftsmanship on display makes Goddard one of the most exciting directors to watch. Despite my misgivings with the plotting of the film, I thoroughly enjoyed settling in at the El Royale and being made to feel like one of the mysterious managers; sitting and watching how these people’s lives implode due to their poor choice of lodging. That voyeuristic approach to the story is what made Cabin in the Woods so entertaining. It is also an added bonus that every inch of the set and costumes are impeccably designed and transport you right back to 1969. For a single location ensemble thriller, the atmosphere is vital to making the story and characters flourish and having the audience feel included. In this area, Goddard succeeds.
Goddard has plenty of good ideas and instincts, but conciseness is what this film lacks the most, and the fact that Hemsworth’s Billy Lee isn’t seen for larger stretches of the film is a crime against humanity. However, Bad Times at the El Royale is an interesting and entertaining film that is drenched in 1960’s fashion and style, with an ensemble cast that is all too happy to throw themselves into this world, while giving the audience intriguing performances. While Bad Times at the El Royale is a genre-bending journey that explores many aspects of 1960’s America, the twists and turns don’t lead to a satisfying conclusion.
Bad Times at the El Royale opens in theatres this Friday!