Drew Goddard’s debut feature THE CABIN IN THE WOODS was a highly memorable way to start a directorial career. This wasn’t just a meta-horror in the SCREAM tradition, it was a call to arms for horror fans and filmmakers to demand something more out the genre than the same exhausted stories they’ve seen (and/or made) countless times. In the years since that film’s release Goddard has worked as a screenwriter with credits on WORLD WAR Z and THE MARTIAN, two unusual if not groundbreaking takes on familiar genre territory. But it’s been some time since he was in the director’s chair, and his latest feature is something hardly anyone could have seen coming. It’s sadly inevitable that BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE will be compared to the late-90s tsunami of Tarantino knock-offs that glutted multiplex screens and video store shelves in the wake of PULP FICTION‘s massive success, but as in his first feature Goddard uses a specific kind of storytelling in unexpected ways.
The El Royale is an isolated motel built on the state line between Nevada and California near Tahoe. In the 60s it was a destination for the rich and famous, but after losing the gambling license for its Nevada wing the hotel has fallen into obscurity. By 1970, it’s all but abandoned–a roadside curiosity, a haunt for people passing through who are down on their luck and can’t afford to stay closer to civilization. One fateful day, a handful of travelers find themselves converging there: struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) has a gig in Reno the next day, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is returning to his home in the Midwest after visiting his brother, vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) wants to stay in the El Royale’s honeymoon suite whenever he’s passing through, and Emily (Dakota Johnson) is not forthcoming regarding her reasons for dropping in. Miles (Lewis Pullman)–apparently the establishment’s sole remaining employee–suddenly has his hands full, and that’s before almost everybody is revealed to be at the El Royale for reasons other than what they initially claimed. Before the night is out, this quiet little motel will have seen more action than it has in a long time.
There are a number of hooks in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE that pull in the viewer, and that starts with the spectacular production design by Martin Whist. The El Royale itself is a gorgeously executed piece of set design, presenting a glitzy exterior that becomes increasingly dingy the closer the camera gets. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who shot Joe Wright’s ATONEMENT and Lynne Ramsay’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN before moving on to major studio pictures like THE AVENGERS and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, takes full advantage of the El Royale’s elaborate decoration and geography while also giving the numerous asides that take place outside the motel their own memorable and distinctive feel. While the time period of the story is hinted at in the dialogue, an address by Richard Nixon on a television places it firmly in 1970 and the excellent soundtrack makes this feel more genuine and warm than any typical late-90s convoluted crime thriller.
The other major hook that is immediately apparent is Tony Award-winning Cynthia Erivo. Erivo also appears in Steve McQueen’s upcoming film WIDOWS, but BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is the first time many filmgoers will have seen her, and this is a hell of a first impression. She’s excellent all around, and her incredible singing features in a few key scenes unaccompanied by anything but a metronome. She walks off with the whole damned movie, which would be impressive for any debut performance but is damn-near impossible to believe in a film with a cast this strong. Goddard’s script gives everyone at least one eternally quotable line, and jumps around in time to establish just who these people are and how they’ve ended up at this point in their lives. Loss is a major motivator for each of them: Loss of family, career, innocence. These losses are all tied to the whims and wants of men exercising power, whether that’s double-crossing a partner, wielding their position and wealth as a blunt weapon to prevent access to better things, or a government sending legions of young men to die–or come home forever damaged. By the time Chris Hemsworth appears as Mansonesque cult leader Billy Lee, terrorizing the unfortunate souls who have found themselves at the El Royale, it’s clear Goddard’s film is a strong condemnation of the same kind of toxic machismo and lazy irony those misguided 90s Tarantino rip-offs so frequently celebrated.
It’s tough to say how a wide audience might react to something so completely different from any other major Hollywood movie hitting the big screen this year. The film’s 141 minute running time might put off some folks alone, but this movie moves. It’s somehow both patient and propulsive, building character and place through careful attention to detail but never failing to entertain. Goddard has pulled off something really special with BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, somewhat reminiscent of what JJ Abrams and Bad Robot have done with OVERLORD, which is also opening wide theatrically in the near future. That film is at heart a B-movie monster thriller blown up to Hollywood proportions; this superficially resembles the kind of film that “independent” studios like Miramax and October Films were making in the 1990s but made with “blockbuster” resources. It’s thoughtful, tense, and graceful in ways that movies on any level of production rarely are. It also happens to be a straight-up blast, a thriller with a musical soul and a genuine, deeply earnest heart.
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Tags: Chris Hemsworth, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Drew Goddard, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Martin Whist, Miramax, October Films, Pulp Fiction, Richard Nixon, Seamus McGarvey, Tarantino