Back in 2012, director Drew Goddard delivered a surprisingly excellent horror-comedy in the form of The Cabin in the Woods. Giving a creative approach to a genre known for its stupidity, Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon brought to life a film that both tackled the source material it parodied while also standing out from the crowd for its twists, turns, and disturbing imagery. Goddard returns with Bad Times at the El Royale, a movie which aims to do precisely the same as his first feature: give the audience an easy-to-follow mystery that explores complex themes while providing thrills at the same time. He certainly knows his craft, and it shows, with Bad Times quickly becoming one of the best of the year.
Taking place in 1969, the movie unfolds over the course of one night at the titular hotel, a run-down shell of what it used to be. Literally built on the border between California and Nevada, guests have the option to stay in either one of the states, which the film clearly has fun toying with the idea of. It’s quite a retro-feeling flick and makes sure to let the audience know that from the start. The scenery, music, cars, and costumes all fit the wonderfully vintage aesthetic put on display here, which makes its disturbing themes feel thankfully less so. It’s a lot to process all at once, but that doesn’t mean that it fails at its goal. Quite the opposite, actually.
Bad Times is presented in a very straightforward way, presented to the audience in a format resembling that of a play, complete with titles for each segment. However, this doesn’t really do much to help the film’s main problem: its pacing. Right from the get-go, the introduction of the main characters is a bit rushed and jumbled, even coming off as awkward at points. In addition, the film is way too long for its own good, clocking in at a whopping 140 minutes. Thankfully, some of that time is made to feel shorter on behalf of masterful cinematography, which holds your attention until the second the movie ends.
Goddard is a master at subverting expectations: The Cabin in the Woods is filled with a ton of “what the fuck” moments, and he once again makes sure to play with the viewer’s mind all the way through. From the moment the movie begins, the audience is treated to a series of fairly simple scenes that all tie together brilliantly, and creating a deeply complex mini-universe in the process. By taking place solely at the El Royale hotel, it creates an almost diorama-like structure, adding to the suspense and intrigue that gradually builds over the course of the night. As mentioned before, the cinematography is amazing, and the long takes (yes, that’s plural) are utterly fascinating and transfer so well, adding to the sense of realism and the diorama feel. Throw in some vibrant neon signs, some elegant wallpaper, and the surreal sound of silence, and you have yourself this movie.
That being said, while those elements certainly work to its advantage, Bad Times would be nothing without the stellar performances from its ensemble cast. Jeff Bridges is likable from the moment you meet him, delivering every one of his lines with easy charm, and Jon Hamm gives a very good performance too (at least once you get past his shoddy introduction). Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny also prove to have just enough charisma to carry the scenes they headline. However, it’s Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman, and Chris Hemsworth who are the true show-stealers. With Erivo and Pullman providing emotionally driven roles and Hemsworth having the time of his life as cult leader Billy Lee, Goddard shows just how colorful and righteously grounded his characters can be, and how invested he can make you can be in them.
It’s also worth noting that the soundtrack to Bad Times is phenomenal. The jukebox that lies inside the El Royale’s lobby dishes up some wonderful fun and proves to be a great mood-setter in more ways than one. Much like films like last year’s Baby Driver, the outstanding soundtrack offers an enjoyable backdrop to the main show, almost feeling like an escape of sorts. It’s unfortunately not prominent enough, but what we get is certainly better than nothing.
Bad Times at the El Royale manages to top every expectation set by fans of Drew Goddard’s previous efforts. Every ounce of heart and soul that Goddard threw into his other films manages to worm its way in here as well, creating a well-written, emotionally investing story. Seamus McGarvey’s masterful cinematography helps to tell that story, especially during the incredible long takes (and there are a plethora of those). The music is fitting, but not just the throwback soundtrack; Michael Giacchino’s score is riveting as well. The dark undertones of power and manipulation shine through brilliantly and assembling a cast as talented as this helps to create an increasing investment on the audience’s behalf. However, it’s the complex themes explored as a result of their characters that makes them matter. This is truly one of the best films of the year.
Bad Times at the El Royale stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, and Chris Hemsworth. Directed by Drew Goddard.