Drew Goddard is no stranger to crafting delightful meta-stories. His directorial debut Cabin in the Woods was a fantastic horror comedy that embraced the scary movie tropes we’re all-too-familiar with and shocked us with its originality and self-awareness. He’ll make you believe you’re watching one thing, then strap you in for a metaphorical rollercoaster through sub-genres that will have you leaving the theater feeling surprised at how much you actually enjoyed it. It definitely leaves you eager to see what he makes next.
Bad Times at the El Royale is about a seemingly deserted hotel called the El Royale in Lake Tahoe. It's split down the middle by the border of California and Nevada. You have the option of staying in either state -- choose wisely. The film kicks off with a frantic Nick Offerman stumbling into a room at what we can only assume is the El Royale. The camera remains in one place as we watch him pull apart every corner of the room to bury a bag under the floorboards. Not long after, a man knocks on the door and shoots him in the head. These abrupt incidents are what push this sly noir into Pulp Fiction territory. Much like the bistate border in the El Royale, the story balances on a thin line for a crime thriller – occasionally tipping over the side into extremes that keep you on edge.
We flash forward ten years and meet four guests that are all checking in. Jeff Bridges plays a priest named Father Flynn, Jon Hamm is a salesman named Laramie Seymour Sullivan, Cynthia Erivo is a songstress named Darlene Sweet, and Dakota Johnson is the mysterious hippie filled with very few niceties and a TON of attitude. Once this wacky bunch obtains their keys and settle in, the thrilling narrative begins to unravel.
Laramie is the first to discover the secretive side of the hotel. Inside the maintenance closet, there runs a long hallway filled with windows. Each one is a two-way mirror and looks directly into a room. Creepy, right? As Laramie makes his way down the hall, he begins to see what each person is really doing in their respective rooms. What makes this scene so incredible is the ominous sound of Darlene singing acapella to The Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart of Mine" -- as heard through a speaker in the hallway -- while Laramie roams from window to window. It’s a tracking shot that leaves our characters vulnerable and the audience even more intrigued.
As the story continues, title cards pop up to inform us of who we’ll be learning the backstory of next. It’s fun, exciting, and helps to enrich the story and the characters. This movie boasts a strong cast that keeps the narrative afloat even when it starts to sink.
While we have plenty of development for our core characters, Chris Hemsworth's "Billy Lee" is shoehorned in towards the end as a crazed cult leader, similar to that of Charles Manson. It’s an interesting take that fits the late 60’s time period that the film is set in, but fails to effectively hit its mark -- despite his snazzy dance moves. Once he's introduced, the story begins to drag on into its third act and all-in-all the finale of the 2 hour and 21-minute runtime ends up feeling a bit lackluster.
Bad Times at the El Royale weaves together multiple narratives into a Tarantinoesque story that's stylish and entertaining but ultimately gives way to the weight of its third act -- falling off the line that it balanced on so well in the beginning.