Drew Goddard is a filmmaker with some decidedly interesting stuff to his name. The Cabin in the Woods is the ultra-meta horror comedy critique on genre movies, and I’ll never forget how overwhelmed I was by just how smart that movie was. 2015’s The Martian saw him transferring to more mainstream, albeit still weird, fare. He’s also the executive producer on Michael Schur’s The Good Place, one of the weirdest (and best) shows on television. So, I walked into his latest offering, Bad Times at the El Royale with high expectations. I expected something similar to his previous works. Well, good news, it’s a marginally well-done thriller. Bad news, it’s just not weird enough.
The El Royale is a 1950’s novelty motel that has seen better days. It sits on the border of California, and Nevada, with a line cut down the middle, and guests can choose to stay in either California or Nevada. One night, seven strangers, including Jon Hamm as a vacuum cleaner salesman, Jeff Bridges as a priest, Tony winner Cynthia Erivo as a struggling singer, each with a secret of their own, arrive at the El Royale. Others arrive, secrets and agendas are revealed, and something’s afoot.
Written and directed by Goddard, this is also a very twisty puzzle that unfortunately takes way too long to solve. It introduces all of these elements that set the stage for something much more intriguing than it actually is. It takes place at a tremendously volatile time in American history, and it nudges at social issues that were going on at the time, which, theoretically, could tie into the current political climate today, and doesn’t go there. We also learn secrets about the motel itself and a mysterious “management” that go nowhere. There’s interesting stuff with the Jon Hamm character in act one that is introduced and forgotten about by act three, and it all feels very half-realized.
It’s super stylized, but kind of empty, and yet contains some very nice performances. Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo (soon to be seen in the upcoming Widows,) is the highlight, as perhaps one of the only decent people here. I would say she and Jeff Bridges are the leads, and they do nice work together. Chris Hemsworth and Dakota Johnson are both having fun here, but neither of them is fleshed out enough, and neither feels like a real person. Cailee Spaeny, as Johnson’s sister, is frustrating to watch. Also, a more interesting backstory to Lewis Pullman’s bellhop character is teased, but the script doesn’t deliver.
Once Bad Times at the El Royale gets where it wants to go, it’s quite good. The cast is having fun, and there are plenty of juicy twists, but I still left with a “is that all there is?” Goddard is having fun with narrative tricks, but the film isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. It wants to sit somewhere in between Tarantino and David Lynch stylistically and gets about halfway there. It does that thing where you see a crucial event played out multiple times from different people’s perspectives, as we’re learning what everyone’s true motivations are. That works, but not everything does.
It’s got a great soundtrack, snazzy visuals, and an eclectic cast, but the script could have gone through a few more revisions. If it followed through with the promising themes it introduces, this could be a masterpiece, unfortunately, it settles for “all right” instead. It could be about a half hour shorter without losing anything. It isn’t quite up to Goddard’s weird, brilliant standards, but it’s still worth a trip to the movies. See a matinee.