Writer and director Drew Goddard is always a solid pick to create interesting and unique cinema. Few filmmakers helm such versatile and high-concept works in an industry valuing remakes and reboots. In Goddard’s latest movie, Bad Times at the El Royale, the talented artist crafts yet another completely unique and original mystery. The period thriller brings together an A-list cast and an entertaining storyline, add in some stellar visuals and Bad Times at the El Royale emerges as a definite must sees of the fall.
To delve to deep into this movie would quickly enter spoiler territory. The film follows seven strangers who converge on a rundown Lake Tahoe hotel in late 1969. (The El Royale is based on a real hotel, Google it… it’s fascinating!). However, nothing is ever as easy as it seems as each finds themselves caught up not only in their own drama, but one another’s problems as well. The story brings an A-list cast led by Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth and Dakota Johnson. Newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman round out the talented group. Drew Goddard directs Bad Times at the El Royale from his own script.
No stranger to high-concept scripts, Goddard constructs another behemoth with Bad Times at the El Royale. After getting his start as a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and later spending some time on Lost, Goddard worked on some fascinating genre properties like Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield and The Martian. He continues to be one of the more interesting (and talented) writers currently working in the industry, and Bad Times at the El Royale shows just how good Goddard is at his craft. In a sea of remakes and reboots this year, this original property feels like a breath of fresh air.
What felt particularly refreshing in this script is that despite a crowded cast, an effort is made to actually develop and get to know the numerous characters. The story quickly establishes who these people are as complex and well-rounded individuals through some compelling flashbacks. The screenplay is well-structured and each of these narrative detours feel like they have a purpose, rather than simply adding to the run time.
The snappy dialogue (Goddard is a Joss Whedon acolyte) combines with well-crafted performances to mine likability out of some potentially unlikable characters. Cynthia Erivo emerges as one of the stars of Bad Times at the El Royale. Her restrained, but emotional portrayal of struggling nightclub singer Darlene Sweet feels timely to the cultural flux of the late 1960s. She’s a woman caught between the rampant repression of the early years of the decade and the onslaught of the progressivism defining the late 1960s, and the conflict is apparent through her interactions with those around her (particularly Bridges). In fact, Darlene gives a speech late in the third act which feels timely to our current #MeToo struggles. So many women have recently expressed just how tired they are right now. However, Darlene is very much the heart of this rather cynical film. Make sure you keep an eye on this talented newcomer as she will undoubtedly hit Hollywood hard in the coming months
Meanwhile, young actor Lewis Pullman started popping up in feature roles within the last year, often appearing with his famous father (Bill Pullman). In his portrayal of the troubled desk clerk Miles, Pullman taps into a tremendously likable vulnerability. The young actor is incredibly strong performing beyond the dialogue, and the trauma his character suffers through makes you want to give him a big hug. His take on the character demonstrates just how good he is, and hopefully he’s on the path to nailing down a starring role soon.
All the A-listers are all good as well. Bridges (as usual) carries the brunt of the impressiveness, while Dakota Johnson shows some interesting duality (once again, no spoilers!). A tremendous amount happens with her character, and she juggles it with a freewheeling ease. Now that Johnson is free of the “Fifty Shades” franchise, here’s hoping the still young actress pulls a Daniel Radcliffe and takes on some challenging and interesting roles to show us exactly what she can do.
The film’s biggest struggle is its pacing. The script clocks in at a hefty 2 hours and 20 minutes. There are moments of intense, jump-scare quality violence, but there’s a lot of dialogue in-between as the audience gets to know the characters. Could the movie use a bit of a trim? Probably. However, this criticism is down to personal tastes as the subject matter carries incredibly well through the exciting script.
However, there are moments which could use a bit more development as well. Chris Hemsworth’s charismatic cult-leader cuts a fascinating and imposing figure. Unfortunately, much of his participation is relegated to the third act, and at that point it’s difficult to deep dive into his character. Hemsworth shows some real flashes of menacing; but, it doesn’t seem to go quite far enough for the actor to truly hit this drastically against-type performance home. With a little more time, or a slightly different narrative construction, this could be an awards caliber role for the franchise actor.
Meanwhile, Bad Times at the El Royale is an absolute work of art from a visual perspective. Goddard teams up with production designer Martin Whist, set decorator Hamish Purdy and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey to craft a stunning looking movie. A period piece, the film does everything right in capitalizing on the very specific traits of the late 1960s, utilizing the set design to build a distinctive and beautiful environment. Fans of all things vintage (specifically this era) should find themselves in awe of this movie. Furthermore, the world-building extends to the cinematography as well, which makes beautiful use of lighting. The florescent sign outside of the hotel becomes another character in the picture, contributing much to the look and feel of the film. Along with the dramatic use of rain, it plays a vital part in establishing the distinctive setting.
There is so much here to like and Bad Times at the El Royale is packaged incredibly well. The quirky thriller brings well-structured characters, solid action and beautiful filmmaking. Definitely head out to take a look at this movie this weekend.
Bad Times at the El Royale opens in theaters around the country today.
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