Hotels in the off-season: Does anything good ever happen there? Every character in a horror movie should answer with a resounding, “Hell, no!” Whether it’s an aspiring writer, doing a little house-sitting or a fraudulent employee lying low after stealing some cash, there’s nothing good waiting in whatever backwater establishment exists to hole up in for the night.
Drew Goddard’s new movie tells us flat-out the kind of experience time travellers who find themselves at the El Royale Hotel are going to have. The opening of the film makes it clear El Royale isn’t vying for any Michelin stars. Someone is going to a lot of trouble to bury a duffle bag underneath the floorboards of a room. Once the task is completed, someone comes to the room and murders the burier in cold blood. It doesn’t take long for bad times to kick in.
It’s the 1960s on the California/Nevada border. The infamous El Royale straddles the line between two states and provides weary travellers rooms in each state. The establishment has seen better days; it used to be a hopping gambler’s paradise for those near or around Lake Tahoe. Four different personalities roll up on one evening, each with their own secrets: a grizzled elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), who feels a little too eager and earnest, and a backup singer (Cynthia Erivo) trying to find cheap digs while preparing for her first headlining show in Reno. They encounter a slimy, off-putting vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) who seems desperate to acquire the honeymoon suite, in spite of travelling alone. Then there is an abrasive hippie-chick (Dakota Fanning) who has zero interest in anyone else. The hotel is managed by a mousy clerk named Miles (Lewis Pullman), who seems to be wrestling with a number of his own issues while dealing with these damaged patrons.
A number of mysteries beg many questions: What’s in the duffle bag buried underneath the floorboards? Is our friendly priest really a man of the cloth? Why is the salesman searching his room for listening devices? Why does one have a body in the trunk? What other secrets does this creepy, super-stylish hotel have? It feels irresponsible for me, the critic, to answer any of it.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a stylish little noir thriller that has fun with timelines, flashbacks and finding interesting ways to weave the story together. Talking more about the plot is going to diminish the experience, so I’m going to shut up now.
What I would like to talk about is how beautiful the movie is. It is dripping with style, from the beautiful “Mad Men”-era decor to a soundtrack steeped in some classic Motown and Doo-Wop hits.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a movie with a great sense of style and it’s finely finessed. Every moment feels intentional. From start to finish, the film is a well-crafted cinematic treat—the kind of movie that sits nicely beside other entertaining noir thrillers of yesteryear.
I’d also like to talk about Drew Goddard, who has become one of the most entertaining writers and filmmakers to emerge over the last decade. He wrote and directed the brilliant “Cabin in the Woods,” which might be the smartest, most entertaining post-modern movie of the 21st century. As a writer, his chops have been well-established, with scripts for great movies like “The Martian.” As a director, his sophomore films prove he’s just as capable behind the camera—creating a fun, tense and engaging throwback.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a fantastic entertainment piece. The cast is remarkably game and brings a lot of energy to a tight, engaging script. It’s hard not to love Jeff Bridges, who manages to make even the most nefarious character seem ridiculously charming. Newcomer Lewis Pullman does an equally impressive job in his role as a morally conflicted young man searching for salvation.
This is a great thriller. The El Royale is totally worth a visit.