Writer/director Drew Goddard is no stranger to a good mystery. Having made his bones writing for shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Alias, he went on to write 2008’s Cloverfield and co-write 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, which he also directed. Though Goddard’s directed some television episodes since, he now returns to the feature director’s chair with the mystery thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, a slightly sleazy crime drama stuffed with fantastic talent and barely a single good intention. In his second feature, it becomes clear that Goddard possesses an identifiable style, one which includes shadow conspiracies, wrong-place-wrong-time scenarios, and plenty of bloodshed. In a runtime which exceeds 2-hours, Goddard wastes not a single moment, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats for the entire ride.
The El Royale Hotel is an amusement of sorts for folks visiting the Lake Tahoe area as it sits astride the California-Nevada border. Guests can choose to stay on either side, but must be aware that the laws active in each state apply to their respective sides; so don’t think you can drink in the dry state of Nevada just because you’re a guest of the hotel. For that, you’d need to travel to the California side, at which point you can enjoy your beverage of choice. Understanding the rules is only one part of enjoying your stay at the El Royale, but don’t worry, Miles the Concierge (Lewis Pullman) will make sure your stay is a pleasant one.
Four strangers check into the El Royale hotel on a random day in 1969, each with their own private intent for arriving that day. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) arrive almost simultaneously, while Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) comes a little later. However, as day shifts to night, the truth of their natures and purposes is revealed. What none of them expected is the long-lasting and far-reaching impact of their chance meeting.
The whole of Bad Times can be summed up in three things: design, narrative, and characters. Working in concert, these three elements create not just a film, but a window into a fictitious world which feels simultaneously hyperreal and tangibly real. Moreso, each aspect reflects a concurrent theme of duplicity throughout the film. Taken on its face, the design of Bad Times is the most explicit due to the literal split design of the hotel with one side designed to reflect the sunny warmth of California and the other, the colder steel of the Battle Born state. While the concept instills a novelty aspect to the location, the split-design also serves as a warning for those that consider it: things are more than they appear at the El Royale. This and the constant use of reds, purples, and golds, convey a sense of high-born royalty and acute danger in every frame.
Seeing as Goddard can’t just tell a straight story, he even used simple blocking to continue this theme of conflicting tones. In an early scene, Father Flynn, Darlene, and Laramie listen to Miles tell the story about the El Royale and each is shown in the same shot, yet they stand staggered from each other: Flynn is closest to the counter, Darlene positions herself to know where each man is located, and Laramie rests by the entrance to the hotel. Though their conversation is light and mostly friendly, their physical positioning suggests a dissonance between them. Later, to really nail the point home, the camera focuses on Laramie walking into frame as he tours his room – the Honeymoon Suite, only to have another version of him also come into frame: the first version being his reflection in a mirror.
These kinds of physical and psychological markers are becoming trademark for Goddard, as is as his approach to the narrative. Just like in Cabin, Goddard is telling multiple stories at once. Cleverly, while the narrative is split in both time and structure via a vignette-like style to give the audience full context for each character, it all flows in a natural manner, even as it moves in fits and starts all the way to the end. For some, the narrative splintering of Bad Times might seem like a distraction, but it wonderfully maintains momentum and enables the audience an opportunity to slow down after each narrative ramp up. It’s difficult to discuss this particular aspect without spoiling some of the surprises, but consider this: by toying with time rather than using exposition to provide details or offer an extended introduction for each central character, Goddard allows the audience to piece together who each character is, understand their motivations, and come to terms with the inevitable ending long before it is reached. If you’re familiar with Goddard’s prior work, the only thing that’s certain beyond violence is that no character remains on screen past their usefulness. Whether a particular character’s story is satisfactory or not is up to the audience, but the design is obviously purposeful and thoughtful, never dragging a character out longer than he or she serves the story.
There’s no discussion of Bad Times without mentioning the performances. Cynthia Ervio’s work in Bad Times is going to change the fact that she has been, up until this point, relatively unknown to theatrical audiences. Her portrayal of Darlene is incredibly nuanced, most of which is conveyed through micro-expressions. On paper, the character of Darlene is fairly straight-forward: a singer hired to work in Reno, but opts to stay in Lake Tahoe where it’s cheaper. However, when you add that she’s a woman, Black, and it’s the ‘60s, all of a sudden, each interaction with every man becomes absolutely loaded with tension. It also makes the choices she makes seem absolutely rational in the face of irrationality. With all of this deep context, Erivo offers a performance you can’t look away from. Partnering her with Bridges’s Flynn is a masterstroke from Goddard, as these actors do their best work in the film when sharing scenes together. It’s unclear really who is elevating whom, but they are so much fun to watch, it doesn’t particularly matter. Hamm’s performance as Laramie is a little harder to pin down, yet Hamm manages to find not only the humanity in the character, but offers a delivery that’s as double-tongued as the setting. As the last main guest of the El Royale, Johnson instills Emily with not only the bodacious audacity of a woman coming up in the Woman’s Liberation movement, but a subtle vulnerability.
For all of its strengths, there’s one glaring issue with Bad Times and it’s the way it loses momentum in the final act. Though Goddard finds a brilliant way to bring all the individual narrative strings together in an interesting way, what should be a tense showdown doesn’t feel that way. Rather, its inevitability feels lackluster at best. This is, perhaps, a fault of the Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) character never seeming imposing, despite being a loaming specter in the background since the guests’ arrival. How his path converges with the El Royale is worth figuring out on your own, but all you need to know is that he’s a cult leader who commands his people to do virtually anything he wants, except that the man himself doesn’t seem threatening at all. This aspect alone makes his physical entrance into Bad Times less malevolent and more of a nuisance, even in the face of extreme violence.
Put simply: Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale is the kind of film you want to rewatch as soon as you’re done. It’s rich detail work in the narrative, the lush set design, beautiful cinematography, and fantastic performances make the entire experience fun, even at its most depraved. Wonderfully, even when it dives into the lewd or wicked, it’s not about debasement of the characters; rather, it serves as a way of adding deeper color to the world Bad Times takes place within. So, if you haven’t take a trip to the El Royale, now’s a great time to check-in.
Available on digital December 18, 2018.
Available on Bluray and DVD January 1, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.