You walk into a spacious lobby filled with extravagant decorations, stuffed animals staring blankly out from behind glass. Rows of keys on hooks behind the check-in desk are unreachable as the clerk is mysteriously absent. The place is immaculately clean yet appears completely deserted. You have found yourself in the ‘El Royale’, the setting for Drew Goddard’s latest directorial endeavour. A building which keeps its cards close to its chest, careful not to give too much away to anyone but the most curious visitor.
A look back at the iconic, yet troubled, 1960s in the USA, Bad Times at the El Royale chronicles one night at the eponymous ‘El Royale’, a seedy hotel on the California/Nevada border. As guests arrive, introductions are made, but it is clear that not everyone is being entirely truthful. Things quickly go from bad to worse for the five strangers as secrets are revealed and weapons are drawn…
‘The striking visual feel works because the dialogue and acting are not particularly concerned with grounded realism; Goddard fully embraces the dramatic’
The key strengths of this movie lie within the script. The opening scene, (you might call it the prologue, taking place a decade earlier than the rest of the story) is a masterclass in mystery and suspense. We watch as a shadowy figure buries a duffel bag under the floorboards of a hotel room before promptly taking a shotgun blast to the back. Immediately we cut to what seems to be an ordinary day at the hotel, but now the audience is on edge after getting a taste of the action, awaiting the inevitable descent into chaos, as they were promised. A story filled with twists and turns builds tension as flashbacks reveal more and more of the characters’ chequered past, culminating in a nail-biting climax. The unpredictability of the narrative is expertly executed in a way that is very uncommon to see in modern blockbusters; I found myself jumping in surprise more often than during most horrors.
Along with an excellent script, one element of the movie that must be noted is Seamus McGarvey’s stunning cinematography. The hotel is filled with roaring fires and expensive furnishings, the hammering rain acting as a smothering blanket over the premises. The glowing jukebox standing against the back wall of the hotel lobby provides the film with a fiery jazz and soul soundtrack, filling every corner of the building with energy. At first it seemed to me that the movie should have opted for a darker feel, but it becomes apparent while watching that the visual style fits perfectly with the tone of the film. The striking visual feel works because the dialogue and acting are not particularly concerned with grounded realism; Goddard fully embraces the dramatic.
This dramatic flair, however, cannot be discussed without mentioning the absolutely spot-on casting of this movie. It goes virtually without question that Jeff Bridges inhabits his role perfectly as the ‘crooked priest’ (“I’m old, shit happens, get the whiskey”) but the real shining stars are the newcomers. Lewis Pullman seems to have just stumbled onto set in his role as a beautifully original take on the ‘good kid in with the wrong crowd’ trope. But the person who truly steals the limelight is Cynthia Erivo, in her screen acting debut no less. In her role as aptly named ‘Darlene Sweet’, Erivo is overflowing with both charm and cynicism, bringing with her an incredible screen presence.
‘The unpredictability of the narrative is expertly executed in a way that is very uncommon to see in modern blockbusters; I found myself jumping in surprise more often than during most horrors’
While Goddard’s vision is unarguably realised, the movie is not without its faults. Throughout the 140-minute runtime, the film tries to tackle issues ranging from the Manson family to the Vietnam War. While these references help cement the film firmly in the time period and location, they do leave the story lacking in focus slightly. Similarly, quite a few of the scenes could do with a minute or two trimmed off the edges, although admittedly this does serve to flesh out the characters and give more texture to the El Royale itself.
Goddard does so much more than capture the look of the late 60s, he manages to bring the era to life with a brilliant cast and spectacular set design. Bad Times at the El Royale is an incredibly enjoyable film and I would highly recommend it to anyone who fancies an action-packed thriller filled to the brim with wit and social commentary alike. It is certainly pleasing to see an original script executed with such enthusiasm and style.