Drew Goddard clearly loves genre storytelling, but in a sideways manner. His films aren’t really spoofs or pastiches, they’re twists and re-jigs. The essential elements that make a genre recognisable are all there, but arranged in a pattern you’ve never quite seen before. BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE continues in this vein.
Secrets, lies, a bi-state-straddling hotel long past its splendour and four strangers with agendas equals a very interesting night’s stay. What do a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (John Hamm) and a rebel (Dakota Johnson) have to hide?
Much like in Goddard’s CABIN IN THE WOODS, the board is set, the rules established then board and rulebook are chucked into a woodchipper. It’s a bit less glib about what it’s doing with noir conventions than his horror deconstruction was, but it’s still very knowing. We’re given a long time to get to know the characters and the setting on a surface level, but concrete facts about people remain elusive. No one’s who they say they are, the question is to what extent are they not who they say they are? The film’s strongest initial stretch mostly comprises of the guests trying to work each other out while keeping their own secrets, the El Royale included as another enigmatic character. Sadly the first character to violently cop it ends up being less interesting than the others purely from their lack of screentime, but there isn’t a weak performance in the ensemble.
I think by this point people who are pretending to be priests to hide their ulterior motives outnumber actual priests by quite a bit in movies. Our “priest” here is Jeff Bridges, who continues his run of the most nuanced performances of his career, twisting our sympathies for him and vice versa this way and that. Each guest brings their own sub-genre with them to flavour the film, from crime to conspiracy and cult horror. Bad Times even veers off into full-blown musical territory with Cynthia Erivo’s blow-the-doors-off soul numbers.
Bad Times is a lot more stylistically interesting than Cabin in the Woods, playing with time and perspective to keep you on your toes. You immediately think of RESERVOIR DOGS with the opening quiet aftermath of a heist and the Tarantino comparisons keep coming as Goddard’s film relies heavily on the PULP FICTION/HATEFUL EIGHT retread the same scene from someone else’s POV trick, which is great for very gradually revealing key plot information.
Godard makes use of his mid-range budget (sadly these under $30-50 mil passion projects still don’t make money) and his talented cinematographer Seamus McGarvey to make this look seriously good. The lighting and framing are meticulous, capturing characters in parallel prisons and duplicitous dungeons of the physical location and their own psyches. Respect must be paid to the production design team for making the El Royale look credible and yet striking and otherworldly, a difficult balance.
I will say that the film’s last stretch (pretty much from Chris Hemsworth’s appearance onwards) doesn’t deliver on the potential of all the setup. At this point the story becomes all-too-convenient. For one thing, Hemsworth’s Billy Lee didn’t need to be revealed until he’s brought into the plot and might have been more effective as an enigmatic imminent threat. He’s also not a particularly memorable antagonist and his MO is basically like DIE HARD’s Hans Gruber hiding his insecurities, but instead of a thief pretending to be a terrorist with an ideology he’s a bully pretending to be spiritual leader.
Does Bad Times at the El Royale stick a tricky landing? Almost, but a faltering final act and a certain amount of self-indulgence gets in the way. But a few flaws aside, this is an interesting character study within a genre cocktail, with vibrant style to spare. SSP