Note: This is a repost of our Bad Times a the El Royale review from the 2018 Fantastic Fest film festival. The movie is now playing in wide release.
Nearly ten years after filming his feature debut Cabin in the Woods (and about six years since it finally hit theaters), Drew Goddard makes his long awaited return to the director’s chair with Bad Times at the El Royale. The Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum hasn’t exactly been taking it easy in the years since, keeping busy as a producer on TV hits like Daredevil and The Good Place, and earning an Oscar nomination for his writing on The Martian, but fans who’ve waited to see the filmmaker step back behind the camera will find it was worth the wait with Bad Times at the El Royale; a clever, dizzying diorama of character drama and showmanship that takes flight through Goddard’s heartfelt script, impeccable craftsmanship from the below-the-line team, and knockout performances from his ensemble cast.
Set across the backdrop of the Nixon presidency and Vietnam-era America, Bad Times takes us to the titular El Royale, a glitzy spectacle of glinting metals, gleaming lights, and patterned wallpapers split right down the middle by the California/Nevada border, and hiding a whole host of secrets behind its dazzling walls. A one-time hotspot that used to be frequented by glamourous folks like the Rat Pack, the El Royale has fallen into such disuse in the year since that loudmouthed vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) can’t even get some help to the desk when he tries to check in. Then there’s the matter of the hidden tunnels behind the rooms, where cameras and hotel management peer into the guests rooms through two-way mirrors, and which Goddard utilizes to stage some fantastic voyeuristic thriller and action beats.
By the time the rest of the ensemble arrives — led by Jeff Bridges’ mentally degenerating Father Flynn, Cynthia Erivo’s no-nonsense songstress Darlene Sweet, and Dakota Johnson’s hell on wheels ex-hippie Emily Summerspring — the El Royale is seeing the most action its had in years. And it doesn’t take long for the action to heat up to a boiling point. When the overwhelmed and endearing manager Miles (Lewis Pullman) checks them into their rooms, each member of the ensemble brings a secret with them; some dark, like the kidnapped girl in Emily’s trunk (Cailee Spaeny) and some beautiful, like Darlene’s stunning singing voice. Erivo makes a breathtaking film acting debut with Bad Times, but she’s an established Broadway star and Goddard makes powerful use of her musical talents, letting her a cappella refrains serve as the soundtrack for some of the film’s best beats. Michael Giacchino’s crisp, pulsing score also does great work in the film’s most tense moments, occasionally evocative of John Carpenter’s pulse-pounding thriller beats.
Goddard’s jam-packed script sends these characters on a collision course with one wild night of conflicting agendas and unexpected alliances that culminates in the arrival of Chris Hemsworth’s snake-hipped hippie cult leader Billy Lee; the wildcard of an already rowdy deck. Their stories intertwine and loop back, revealing a key set of events from a number of different perspectives, each sketching in a new perspective on the full picture of this wild night at the El Royale. There’s no doubt that Goddard’s style and structure (not to mention the dulcet needle drops) will earn Bad Times a number of Tarantino comparisons, and they are readily present, but Goddard’s film is made with an earnestness and tender-hardheartedness that makes his pulpy crime drama sing in a completely different register than his inspirations.
Goddard’s affection for his characters and knack for genuinely funny dialogue also opens up opportunities for tremendous performances across the board. Bridges is reliably excellent, giving the ailing Father Flynn a pathos and good humor that makes you love him pretty much instantly and Johnson once again proves she’s one of the most weatchable, commanding young actresses out there. But the scene-stealers are the film’s newcomers, Erivo and Pullman, who walk away with the movie. They might just make you cry (or if you’re me, definitely make you cry… multiple times) and will almost certainly make you cheer — both are given some of the film’s best “oh shit” lines and their deliveries are impeccable.
Bad Times is also one stunning spectacle to behold thanks to precision technical elements. Production Designer Martin Whist (who also did Cabin in the Woods) creates a visual wonderland of fading retro-glam with the El Royale. Likewise, costume designer Danny Glicker (mother!) creates a wardrobe of textural, patterned fabrics to pop againsts Whist’s backdrop, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (We Need to Talk About Kevin) captures it all in beautiful, bright (and sometimes striking neon) lights.
At 140 minutes, Bad Times ultimately feels a bit overstuffed, especially when Billy Lee’s eventual arrival underwhelms compared to the film’s earlier sequences. Watching these characters’ personalities and intentions unfold is a fascinating, engrossing experience, but their big collision is a bit rote and familiar. We’ve seen this finale before in plenty of action thrillers — though admittedly with much less interesting characters on the line — and the commonplace climax leaves you wanting just a bit more.
Fortunately, the rest of the film is such a damn delight, and the even the execution of the too familiar parts is elevated enough by dialogue and performance, that you will have undoubtedly had one hell of a good time by the credits role on Bad Times at the El Royale. Goddard’s spin on the crime thriller is all heart (and Hemsworth hips), making his visually stunning love-letter to pulpy pop culture a propulsive, cinematic rush.
Bad Times at the El Royale made its Texas premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018 and is now playing in theaters everywhere.