Neo-noir thriller Bad Times At The El Royale showcases the striking visuals and sense of offbeat humor that made director Drew Goddard’s previous film The Cabin In The Woods such a treat. His first film at the helm since the popular 2012 horror-comedy, the man from Houston, Texas continues to example why both critics and cinemagoers get a buzz from his work.
Aside from assembling a terrific ensemble cast – including Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm and Lewis Pullman – this mixture of crime, mystery and suspense possesses a spritely energy that we’ve previously seen in the likes of The Martian and Cloverfield, both of which he had a hand in writing.
Here, seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at El Royale in Lake Tahoe. It’s a rundown hotel with its own dark mysteries where its assortment of colorful characters seek refuge from their won traumatic past. Delineated by their room numbers on title cards, we’ve got the vacuum salesman, the Motown wannabe, the priest, and the hippy. The junkie desk clerk is on hand to hold it all together, or at least he thinks so, as his quiet, rundown solitude is rudely interrupted by guests with their own unique monsters in their closets.
Beautifully shot by Seamus McGarvey, the film is a visual delight, from the moment we hear The Four Prep’s 26 Miles (Santa Catalina) over a surprise shooting to the film’s equally shocking climax, Bad Times At The El Royale matches its glittering roll call of Hollywood stars with a feast of images where color, contrast and shadow match the mood of the atmosphere.
The sort of film you’ll want to rewatch, Goddard’s penchant for a bold character set piece distinguishes the slow-burning nature of an engaging narrative. Indeed, it’s moments such as the scene in which a roulette is used to determine a character’s fate that frequently enliven the addictive character interactions that explode into a cacophony of converging genres.
Indeed, my favorite scene sees Dakota Johnson’s Emily Summerspring, a "hippie" trying to save her sibling from a cult, faced with a decision to pick red or black on the roulette wheel. If she wins, she survives. If she loses, she’s shot. Chris Hemsworth as the cult leader is sadistic in his playful chatter as the ball spins. Goddard elongates the tension as we await the outcome with sweaty palms, Emily’s life or death 50-50 equation is the simplest of all roulette odds and here it is used to brilliant effect to heighten the suspense.
Premiering at Fantastic Fest last year, the film was met with widespread acclaim. Bad Times At The El Royale is a twisty, blood-soaked mash-up of genres which boasts a self-aware attitude that keeps its ambitions afloat as the various pieces of the puzzle slot together with a sizzling energy only possible because of a uniformly stellar ensemble of actors. Hyper stylized, tinged with 60s detailing, and alive with a sense of its own existence, Goddard’s sophomore effort is a B-movie triumph.