Bad Times at the El Royale
Drew Goddard has found a career as a screenwriter, delivering some delightful hits of the last decade, such as The Martian, Cloverfield, and World War Z. He’s also had success co-creating such hit TV shows as Alias, Lost, and Daredevil. The 43-year-old had only directed one movie previously: the divisive and original horror flick Cabin in the Woods in 2012. Six years later, Goddard has sat down in the director’s chair again.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a bizarre film to describe. The setting is a hotel fallen on hard times that sits right on the border of Nevada and California, so that the rooms are scattered amongst both states. A group of strangers begin to convene, each with his or her own mysterious agenda; and the hotel itself seems to be hiding something. The characters range from a priest (Jeff Bridges), an up and coming singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Jon Hamm), and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) amongst others.
The film really opens up like a play, with the convening characters exchanging smart and quippy dialogue. It’s only as the film begins to settle that it begins to make use of the freedoms of cinema. We begin to get title cards such as “Room 7” or “Room 1” and we’re provided with the backstories of each character, helping give more dimension to seeming clichés, and helping attach ourselves to the fates of each.
Goddard showed in Cabin in the Woods and Lost the art of building up anticipation and mystery, so that by the beginning the viewer is eagle-eyed, paying attention to every detail. However, just like the afore mentioned projects, the resolution to the entire story doesn’t prove to be as satisfying given the build-up. There’s also too much content and gimmicks scattered throughout, so much that you end up forgetting them as time goes on, distracting you from the overall story arc. Goddard seems keen to show off as much as he can about his original ideas, and while you’re kept entertained until the end of the film, it’s only after you cool off from the ending that you realize how many of the premises disappear half-way.
Goddard is able to rack up an impressive cast, and given original and complex characters, the veterans and younger actors are able to play around and truly have fun with their roles. If any two were to stand out, they would be Bridges and Erivo, the latter whom debuts on screen after a successful stint starting in Broadway. Erivo proves to be a true revelation, and I simply can’t wait to see her in more films (she’s next to be in Steve McQueen’s Widows coming November). Bridges, meanwhile, takes on a character with more emotional depth than his other recent roles, which had been full of gruff and tough guys,
In the end, Bad Times at the El Royale is entertaining enough, it certainly does its job as a fun popcorn film. However, given such an original story, characters, and set-up you simply expect a bigger send off by the time the credits roll. Nevertheless, the film confirms the fact that Goddard has stories worth-telling, and we only hope he continues honing skill for his next film.