Drew Goddard debuted as a director with the excellent and fun Cabin in the Woods after writing and producing a number of geek favorites and he’s finally returned behind the camera for the star-studded Tarantino riff, Bad Times at the El Royale.
In 1969, a group of strangers arrive for various reasons at the run down El Royale hotel on the border of California and Nevada (the border literally runs down the middle of the hotel). Formerly a jumping joint that was frequented by the likes of the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe, the El Royale is a shell of its former glory with only a single desk clerk, Milo (Lewis Pullman) left to run things. After everyone checks in, they attend to their own shady business but things eventually spill over and there are tense confrontations, murders and more. The movie does a great job of establishing everyone’s motivations although there’s a slightly strange stylish touch where the movie seems to be establishing it’s going to proceed in sort of “chapters”, with each chapter following a different room but the trope is seemingly abandoned toward the end of the first act but then it’s picked back up right as the climax is at its peak. It seems like sort of an idea that was only half implemented and, if it had been done in a more successful manner, it would have probably made the movie into an even more interesting puzzle box as you see things from each perspective. There’s some flashing back and seeing things play out multiple times but not quite as much as it seems like it was trying to do. That’s really a minor nitpick though as the plot moves along at a great, tension fueling pace and there’s some great sequences that ratchet it up, like a sequence where Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene, a singer on her way to Reno, has to sing to cover up another character trying to open up floorboards in her room while another character is watching from a secret tunnel that allows viewing what’s going on in each room. Once Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, a charismatic but sadistic cult leader, shows up for the third act, things really kick off into a tense and brutal showdown. Tarantino’s inspiration is everywhere, with the setup being extremely similar to The Hateful Eight and the chapters and flashbacks for each character feeling like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. The soundtrack is also very Tarantino as well, with lots of excellent period songs like The Isley Brothers, Frank Valli, and Deep Purple.
Acting wise, everyone is fantastic but Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman stand out among their more famous co-stars. Erivo is the only person in the movie who seems to be a fully good person and becomes the de facto protagonist while Pullman earns sympathy for Milo’s desperate need to get some sort of forgiveness for the horrible things he’s seen and done while in the employ of the El Royale. Jeff Bridges is also fantastic, as always, and it’s refreshing that he’s not doing a spin on his Rooster Cogburn voice, which it seemed like he was going to do for the rest of his career a year or two ago. As mentioned above, it takes a while for Chris Hemsworth to show up but, once he does, the fuse that was burning the entire movie explodes and he takes full control of the movie, delivering a great villainous turn that twists his hunky looks and persona into something sadistic and evil. You’ve also got Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Dakota Johnson, and Cailee Spaeny all doing great stuff as well and there are some great twists to their individual arcs where some of them end unexpectedly or don’t go how you think they are going.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a great thriller if you’re looking for some slow burn, Tarantino style tension and the cast is universally excellent. The setting, both the actual El Royale and the period touches like the clothing, cars, and music are all fantastic as well and really put you in the time period and the plot moves at a steady pace and delivers lots of great twists and turns. It’s a bit long at 2 hours and 20 minutes but it never feels like it’s dragging or needed to lose anything. Check it out if you get a chance (which based on its unfortunate box office performance might not be too long at the theaters).