Drew Goddard, writer/director of ‘Cabin in The Woods’, is one of the highest regarded writers working at the moment. After scripting ‘World War Z’ and ‘The Martian’ (for which he was Oscar nominated), he returns to the director’s chair with his latest project, ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’. After hitting us in the face with a darkly intriguing opening, Goddard takes the audience on a brilliantly entertaining and fantastically crafted journey of coincidence, misfortune and nasty occurrences.
The El Royale hotel sits on the border between California and Nevada, and is split down the middle by the state-line. This truly unique hotel is then populated with a group of equally unique guests, with the likes of Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson all checking in. Also starring are Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spainy and Lewis Pullman, the latter being a relative unknown who utterly steals the show as the nuanced concierge for the hotel.
The film unfolds in a chapter format, with various plot points and character events overlapping in the time frames. The mystery is very quickly set, as in an Agatha Christie play, and the rest of the film allows the story to then slowly unravel. The strength of the script and direction cannot be overlooked, but the biggest strength is the character work and casting. The dialogue really draws you in and delivers some fantastic punches. The plot twists are pleasing, the humour beats are funny and there are genuine jumps, not from horror, but pure shock of what happens.
It’s a very strange film with quite a unique story, despite the fact it has its roots firmly in the neo-noir genre. The classic tropes are all there, despite the fact they are played with and subverted. Subplots of greed, revenge and femme-fetales rear their head and add great depth to the twisting narrative. Aiding the story is some utterly gorgeous production design, and the attention to detail really captures the beauty of the era while also adding mystery to the sets. Though the film is admittedly too long and it’s ending is slightly underwhelming, it never once gets boring and that is a testament to the story and the way it is presented.
Overall, Bad Times at the El Royale is a fantastically entertaining popcorn thriller. It’s not hard work, it delivers some brilliant thrills, and, especially during the first hour or so, is utterly bizarre and totally unpredictable. In an age of blockbusters, it’s nice to have an original screenplay that demonstrates the golden age of Hollywood film noir still echoes around from time to time.