Throughout his career, writer-director Drew Goddard has found clever ways to make real world settings safe for the afterlife (The Good Place), the undead (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or even science fiction (Lost, The Cabin in the Woods, The Martian). With Bad Times at the El Royale, it's reasonable to expect Goddard to throw in some ghosts or some extraterrestrial beings.
Because Godard restrains himself this time, it's like he's directing with one hand behind his back. All the subterfuge in the film has a rational explanation. At times his work is more fun when there isn't one.
Bad Times at the El Royale
82 Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Manny Jacinto, Nick Offerman, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny, Xavier Dolan, Cynthia Erivo
Director: Drew Goddard
Rating: R, for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes
At least Goddard has created a great setting for his ensemble of shady characters to inhabit. The El Royale (yes, it's redundant) is unique because it straddles the state line between California and Nevada. Guests who stay in the Golden State have to spend an extra dollar for the privilege, but that may be because alcohol is forbidden on the Nevada side.
The desk clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman) delivers a long spiel about the wonders of the establishment, but its unique location appears to be all the El Royale has going for it by the early 1970s.
The place, which used to accommodate high rollers from nearby Reno, no longer has a gambling license and is clearly waning. Even with only six or seven guests, Miles is too preoccupied to perform such niceties as mixing drinks or even making fresh coffee.
The guests wind up doing that on their own.
Miles doesn't get to finish his presentation because the guests are not there to take in the scenery or crumbling atmosphere. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is expectedly gracious, but he often looks as if he's more ready to meet his maker than to perform any sort of rites.
That may explain why vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) does most of the talking. If you think he's in an odd place to sell his wares or that his "South of the Mason-Dixon Line" drawl sounds as phony as a $3 bill, you'd be right.
A struggling R&B singer named Darlene Sweet (Tony-winning British actress Cynthia Erivo) simply needs a cheap place to stay before an unpromising gig in Reno, and one defiant guest (Dakota Johnson) simply signs her name as a popular two-word expletive.
There's also charming cult leader (Chris Hemsworth, happily shedding the earnest patrician manners of Thor) and his obviously underage girlfriend (Cailee Spaeny).
All of this ties in with a robber (Nick Offerman) who visited the place before and a host of other secrets that reveal themselves as the rainy night wears on.
To his credit, Goddard's plot twists are surprising and make more sense as the film progresses. Goddard is simply too good a writer to invoke Chekhov's gun without aiming. He also has the courage to literally kill his darlings as the story progresses. From the beginning, Goddard establishes that there is no such thing as safety at the El Royale and thankfully never lets up.
While The Cabin in the Woods allowed Goddard to get by with simply creating a deceptive environment, Bad Times at the El Royale might have benefited from somewhat deeper characterizations. While we know that it's folly to get attached to anybody on screen, it wouldn't hurt if he cared how and when they met their ends.
That said, Martin Whist's production design looks as if he were told to imagine Hell with tacky '50s decor, and hearing Erivo wail with '60s R&B hits is a delightful reworking of carpool karaoke.
MovieStyle on 10/12/2018
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