Review by Rob Vaux
Film noir is a very stylistic genre, and a filmmaker who isn’t careful can get too caught up in the style. Bad Times at the El Royale flirts madly with that pitfall from beginning to end. A gimmicky hotel in the middle of nowhere, a group of colorful strangers assembled by fortune and destiny on a dark and stormy night… the pieces are in place for an interesting technical exercise instead of a genuine movie about genuine people.
Writer-director Drew Goddard has approached this kind of puzzle box before: his brilliant Cabin in the Woods entails a very similar set-up. That film works because of its full-bore embrace of the Meta and how we the audience relate to the dark pleasures of horror films. It escapes the limitations of technique for the sake of technique by turning the mirror on the viewer and exploring our relationship to what we see.
El Royale isn’t as interested in deconstructing its chosen genre, and yet it pulls off the same trick: superior craftsmanship in the services of something more. In this case we need to be emotionally invested the figures on screen despite the artifice of the setting or the plot. Its twists and turns are clever and plentiful, but they wouldn’t work unless we feel for at least a few of the figures we see and root for them to get free of the mess they find themselves in. Cabin in the Woods brilliantly cross-examined its chosen genre. Bad Times achieves the same thing by luxuriating in its joys.
That starts with character and there’s quite a few to choose from here: all of them arriving at the dilapidated El Royale hotel on the California-Nevada border in the face of one humdinger of a storm. The priest (Jeff Bridges) with a handbag full of tools; the young woman (Cynthia Erivo) with the soundproof car trunk; the vacuum-cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm) who insists on taking the honeymoon suite; naturally, none of them are who they appear to be.
Their secrets are matched by the hotel itself, which has seen better days and whose Four-Corners-style attraction of straddling the state line hides far darker purposes. Even the bellhop (Lewis Pullman) – a seemingly throwaway character, and the only staff member on duty – struggles to keep his skeletons contained in the closet. As evening turns to rain-soaked night, everyone’s past slowly catches up to them.
Goddard unfurls the various revelations with a master’s precision: shifting POVs, reversing the narrative, and answering just enough questions to lead us elegantly to the next baffling conundrum. The clock is ticking, with a reckoning creeping closer in the form of a Manson-esque cult leader (Chris Hemsworth, knocking it out of the park). That, in and of itself, would make for diverting entertainment, and there’s plenty of joy to be had simply by trying to guess how it’s all going to turn out. But it goes further than that by tying us deeply to these characters and their struggles. There’s truth in their lives, despite the overt machinations of the plot, and the pain they carry is genuine. They grapple with failure and shame and earnest efforts to do the right thing that go horrifyingly off the rails. We’re never entirely certain what brought them here – at least not until the movie is ready to tell us – but the more our perceptions shift, the more achingly sympathetic most of them become.
That elevates Bad Times above the status of a smart diversion to something richer and more compelling: a crackerjack neo-noir that never confuses artifice with elegance and never allows the mechanics of its labyrinthine plot to substitute for human drama. It earns its ending – as fiery and apocalyptic as you’d expect – and the various revelations along the way. Grabbing our attention is easy. Keeping it – and moving to something far more than simple distractions – is a far more difficult trick. Bad Times at the El Royale pulls it off with deft confidence, and in the process turns itself into one of the best movies of the year.