Bad Times at the El Royale is one of the most audacious studio films I can remember seeing; if there’s one thing I left the theater thinking, it’s that I couldn’t believe that Drew Goddard was able to create such a crazy film without any obvious signs of studio interference. The film is a lurid genre mashup, bringing in all elements of the mystery genre to create a bizarre, intoxicating epic that keeps us enthralled in it’s every moment. There’s definitely moments of indulgence on Goddard’s part, and he could be accused of being too weird just for the sake of it, but a film this interesting and unique doesn’t exist without a good deal of indulgence and a hell of a lot of weirdness.
Set in 1969, four strangers- a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Ervino), a salesman (Jon Hamm), and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) take up residence at the secluded El Royale hotel. Their quirky concierge (Lewis Pullman) is quick to establish the rules, but they have no idea what’s about to happen as the night divulges into madness and secrets are uncovered.
Goddard packs so much in here; there’s so many twists and revelations that it’s almost challenging to keep track of what is supposed to be revealed. Thankfully, Goddard knows when to keep things ambiguous and when to give us the required backstory, and the intertwined saga that these characters inhabit is filled with a variety of genres, giving the film a full palette of influences to drawn on. There are many brilliantly crafted moments of tension that are so creatively crafted that you wonder why someone hasn’t thought of them yet. Even a simple scene of a character walking down a hallway is riveting when set to the right music and lit in the right way; nearly every shot in the film feels lifted from a painting.
This is also hands down the best ensemble I’ve seen all year; the cast brings out the best in each other, and Goddard is clever in his staging so that the character pairings feel unique and the individual storylines never feel stale. The idea of cutting from an exciting scene to a flashback may seem like an odd choice, but it feels perfect in such a wry, “spur of the moment” kind of film. I was extremely impressed by newcomers Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Ervino, who both pretty much steal every scene they’re in, and I was also wowed by Chris Hemsworth’s off the wall, menacing villain; Hemsworth has taken risks before, but the choices he makes here are the signs of a truly great actor.
There’s so much subtext in the film, from social commentary to political satire to the bluntness banality of our existence and desires, and perhaps a critic much wiser than I will write a piece that explains the nuances in the details of the film. Or perhaps not; perhaps it’s just a wildly entertaining noir that breaks down our every expectation and keeps us legitimately invested in it’s darkly funny and deeply riveting story. Either way, Bad Times at the El Royale is the work of a gifted filmmaker who knows how to wow an audience, and I’m in awe of his glorious spectacle. Grade: A