Take one part Agatha Christie mystery novel and one part 1970’s B-movie and you get Bad Times at the El Royale. Drew Goddard’s bloody, twisty new mystery thriller finds all the right beats and runs with them. It isn’t just that it is an homage to B-movies, it’s Goddard’s Reservoir Dogs thematically and structurally speaking to some degree. Deftly balancing its large personalties with a unique brand of story telling, Bad Times ultimately isn’t much else than a fun, popcorn movie. However, the ride Goddard takes us on for 140 minutes is nothing short of engaging.
At the El Royale hotel, a “bi-state establishment” straddling the Nevada and California state lines, several strangers check in. There’s Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) a vacuum cleaner salesman and apparent veteran of the hotel. There’s Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a soul singer and a mysterious priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) whom all seem baffled by the state of the hotel. From the word go, Goddard establish the tone and delivers a rich backstory to the setting by saying very little.
As Emily (Dakota Johnson) arrives, the guests settle into their rooms. Yet, things are certainly not what they seem. As the twists and turns of the story unravels, Goddard reveals the films biggest strength. As the plot threads thicken, Goddard approaches them from different view points. Much like Pulp Fiction, we aren’t quite sure the linear timeline, until Goddard peels back the curtain. In fact, there’s a lot of Tarantino inspiration to be found here. Movies with the structure Goddard adopts often fall of the rails. Over-explained plot lines hamper movies when they aren’t fit together perfectly. Goddard expertly unveils the different points of view.
When Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) enters the picture, things go even worse for our characters. In perhaps one of his better performances on screen, Hemsworth plays an unsettling and evidently some type of cult leader. Billy Lee is looking for Emily, and “his” girl, Emily’s sister Rose.
The performances in the film, particularly from Hemsworth, Bridges, Erivo and Lewis Pullman are fantastic. Pullman plays the troubled keeper of the El Royale. He’s the bartender, the concierge, the housekeeper, everything. Someone is pulling strings. We never find out who. Yet, the performances and the characters themselves feel lived in enough to make us understand why these things are never revealed. It’s clear they are bad, and Goddard’s script tells us just enough that we fell satisfied not knowing.
Bad Times isn’t without its flaws. For all of the wonderful character development, some seem tossed aside too easily. It goes without saying in a film like this one, there is bloodshed. I only wonder if there could’ve been some more interesting dynamics to play out with more characters in the fold. Goddard proved he could handle the volume of personalties early in the film with his structural choices. It is also fairly derivative. That being said, it never feels like it is deliberately ripping anything off in particular.
This is undoubtedly a clever, extremely well made film. Goddard waited six years between this and his directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t wait another six. His writing has always been screen worthy particularly with his scathingly detailed Oscar-nominated screenplay for Ridley Scott’s The Martian. With Bad Times, Goddard reveals another side of himself that takes the best elements of The Cabin in the Woods and creates something new, fresh and highly original for movie goers tired of sequels and remakes.