Bad Times At The El Royale

Director: Drew Goddard.
Screenplay: Drew Goddard.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Nick Offerman, Shea Whigham, Xavier Dolan, Mark O’Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O’Heir, Billy Wickman.

“Shit happens! Get the whisky”

Primarily known for his writing on television shows like Alias and Lost before his transition to film screenplays, Drew Goddard made quite the impression in 2012 with his feature directorial debut, The Cabin In The Woods. It was a creative horror that subverted expectations and recieved quite a positive fan base and put the spotlight on Goddard for one to watch. Oscar also shed some light on him with an Academy Award nomination for his screenwriting on Ridley Scott’s The Martian in 2016 but it was always behind the camera that Goddard showed the most promise. With Bad Times At The El Royale, Goddard has, once again, returned to directing and shows a keen eye for genre filmmaking.

Plot: Across the Nevada/California borderline sits the El Royale hotel where four strangers arrive to check in. It’s no ordinary stay for the guests, though, as each of them are not what they seem. Their intentions are revealed one by one and their secrecy is matched by the history of the hotel itself.

Opening on a mysterious stranger stashing money under the floorboards of a rundown motel, we are instantly thrust into an intriguing plot. We then flash forward ten years later where we are introduced to four other intriguing characters that have arrived at the same motel and, like the introductory character, they all have their own hidden agendas. Primarily that’s what keeps Drew Goddard’s latest film so interesting. The mystery involved from the offset is the hook and Goddard has us eating out of his hand before we’ve even found our feet in this neo-noir. From here, the film is broken up into chapters with each them telling the story of the different motel rooms inhabited by each character. It’s unashamedly reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s fragmented narrative structure (complete with title-cards) whereby we chop and change throughout the story without fully getting a handle on events until some shocking moments of violence tease out the overall intentions.

It’s a hugely involving affair and Goddard weaves a very tangled web with enough tricks and sleight of hand on display to keep us fully involved and interested in how this moody and pulpy mystery will come together. He’s also in no rush which allows him the time to focus on his interesting cast of three dimensional characters. And what a cast he assembles. Each of the colourful ensemble are embodied by first rate performers; Jon Hamm impresses from the moment he arrives onscreen with his loquacious salesman and his gift for the gab, Jeff Bridges brings his usual range and reliability as a Priest with an unsure past and Cynthia Erivo is a revelation as an aspiring singer on the run. We also get the delightful addition of put-upon bellhop Lewis Pullman (son of Bill) trying to facilitate the guests and the debacle of their nefarious intentions. Throw in Dakota Johnson’s rebellious and enigmatic femme-fatale and the game is afoot within the films opening 20 minutes.

That said, Goddard isn’t solely focused on pulling the rug from under us, he also affords each of the characters a precision and backstory which arouses curiosity even further. For the most part, he’s in full command of the material and he’s aided immeasurably by some striking cinematography by Seamus McGarvey but what starts so promisingly (and continues for a lengthy part of the film) becomes disjointed and, unfortunately, a little messy. One of the major mistakes is in revealing the fate of one the best characters far too prematurely and the film struggles a little in their absence. However, Goddard reckons he has an ace up his sleeve by introducing gleefully unhinged cult leader, Chris Hemsworth, to carry the film over the line. As much as it’s a pleasure to see Hemsworth play against type, the film relies heavily on action at this point which almost undoes the meticulous mood and pacing that preceded it. Those familiar with Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods will remember how he brought the film to a close with an outlandish but brilliantly inventive ending but here his ending is actually the films weakness. That said, there’s enough style and narrative twists and turns to keep you entertained throughout its slightly overlong running time.

You could say that Drew Goddard essentially rehashes the same story from his debut feature The Cabin In The Woods only this time he leaves behind the horror and enters into film-noir territory. Fans of the genre will find themselves revelling in the mood and intrigue with Goddard’s narrative and visual style also worthy of note. There’s nods to the work of Quentin Tarantino and although this may not be as accomplished or refined as Tarantino it can, at least, consider itself an El Royale with cheese.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Russell Crowe was originally cast in a role. He eventually dropped out and was replaced by Jon Hamm.

10 Responses to “Bad Times At The El Royale”

  1. I’m really glad you liked this too. I thought it was criminally underappreciated. I get some of the pacing criticisms, but I was locked into it from the start. I’m pretty sure we gave it the same score. Really anxious to see it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really enjoyed it, bro. A great piece of pulp. It tried a little to hard to emulate Tarantino and I wasn’t overly keen on the ending but, like you, I was tuned right into this. I’m looking forward to another viewing myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice review. And love that last line!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, sorry I missed it when released to theaters. Looking to catch up to when I can watch it on the home screen. Fine review, Mark, and Happy New Year. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Knowing how you’re partial to the genre, I think you’ll take something from this Michael. Four stars might be slightly generous as it loses its way slightly but I still really enjoyed it.
      Happy New Year, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s seems an interesting thriller. Those four strangers create instant interest in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi there Mark, hope you’re well. Happy New Year!

    I haven’t seen this yet but I actually enjoyed The Cabin In The Woods so might give this a watch. Interestingly enough, I was actually put off by Hemsworth’s shirtless scene that’s marketed so heavily. I just don’t think of him as a compelling actor but maybe this movie will change my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ruth. It’s been a long time. Happy New Year to your good self.

      I reckon you might enjoy this one. I’m not overly keen on Hemsworth either but he’s quite effective playing against type here. However, the film starts to unravel a bit when he appears (not that it’s his fault though). It just loses its way slightly.


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