Review: Goddard's 'Bad Times at the El Royale' is Nothin' But a Good Time
by Adam Frazier
October 11, 2018
American producer, screenwriter, and filmmaker Drew Goddard began his career as a writer on the hit television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and Lost. He made his foray into film by writing the 2008 found-footage creature feature, Cloverfield. It wasn't until his directorial debut with 2012's The Cabin in the Woods, however, that Goddard's talent for creating strong characters and deconstructing genre conventions fully manifested. Now, after most recently producing Netflix's Daredevil series and writing the screenplay for Ridley Scott's 2015 space film, The Martian, for which he earned Oscar and WGA nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Goddard is back in the director's chair for Bad Times at the El Royale, a spirited, subversive thriller steeped in '60s nostalgia (and paranoia) with an incredible cast and a killer soundtrack.
It's 1958. On a dark and stormy night at the luxurious El Royale resort near Lake Tahoe, an anxious man buries a duffel bag beneath the floorboards of his room. "26 Miles (Santa Catalina)" by The Four Preps plays as the man meticulously moves everything back to its original position. There's a knock at the door. A shadowy figure pays the man a visit—and leaves a corpse. Fast-forward to 1969. Edwin Starr's "Twenty-Five Miles" plays as Richard Nixon is inaugurated as the 37th president of the United States. The El Royale, once a hot spot for celebrities, politicians, and gangsters, has lost its gambling license and fallen into disrepute.
As soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, who also appears in Steve McQueen's Widows) traces the borderline through the resort's parking lot, she comes across a priest, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), looking lost and confused. Together, they enter the lobby where they meet Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a traveling salesman intent on staying in the honeymoon suite. Eventually, they are welcomed by the general manager and sole employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who explains the resort's unique architecture as a reflection of its location. Situated on the border between California and Nevada, the El Royale offers warmth and sunshine to the west; hope and opportunity to the east.
As Flynn and Darlene each decide which room, and therefore which state, they wish to stay in, a muscle car tears through the parking lot. Enter Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades of Grey and the upcoming Suspiria), a hippie who embodies the self-made woman of 1969. Emily demands a room, slaps her money on the counter, grabs the key and exits the lobby as quickly as she arrived. Soon there are other visitors who arrive at the resort, like the young, impressionable Rose (Cailee Spaeny) and the enigmatic Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Over the course of this one rainy night, these strangers will get a shot at redemption – at salvation – if they aren't consumed by the hotel's dark past first.
On one level, Bad Times at the El Royale is an exploration of the aftermath of the 1960s. From the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the events of the '60s forever changed America. It was an era of movements – the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-establishment movement. Anti-war protesters marched in the streets, bohemians and hippies rejected mainstream American values and experimented with psychoactive drugs, and thousands of young men return home in body bags from Vietnam. By setting his prologue in 1958 and jumping to 1969, Goddard bypasses all of these events, but you feel the cumulative weight of the turbulent decade. You see it on the walls of the hotel and on the faces of its guests. The glitz and glamour of the '50s are gone. The bad times are here to stay.
The characters each represent some facet of '60s culture. As a black woman, Darlene represents the struggle of both women and people of color, while Hamm's character, Laramie, serves as the '50s and early '60s interpretation of the American Dream. He's a traveling salesman – an evangelist for consumerism – who embodies the establishment. Emily is a second-wave feminist, and Father Flynn is a religious man who is lost and confused in an era when many believe God is dead. The El Royale is America, mismanaged and in disrepair, divided down the middle by an invisible line. It's an intriguing construct, especially when Goddard begins to peel back the layers and take us deeper inside the hotel and its many secrets.
Brilliant work by casting director Carmen Cuba in recruiting Hamm, known for his role as Don Draper on AMC's Mad Men, as the slick, smooth-talking salesman. Draper exemplifies the American dream of that era – a self-made man who can have anything he wants, whenever he wants it; the ultimate achievement of the consumerist ideal that Laramie is selling on the road. Hamm delivers a standout performance in a film filled with impressive turns from a dynamite ensemble cast. The real breakout, however, is Cynthia Erivo, who is on the verge of becoming a megastar – just like her character.
In one of the film's most ingeniously staged sequences, Darlene has soundproofed her hotel room so she can rehearse for an upcoming gig. She sings The Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" a cappella, filling the room with her soulful voice as she gazes into a mirror. Unbeknownst to her, it's a two-way mirror and someone is gazing back. It's an intimate scene, with Darlene singing her heart out, breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the audience's eyes. A connection is made and an impression is left – on the audience and the person on the other side of the glass. It's moments like this where Goddard shows just how talented of a filmmaker he is by setting up an emotional attachment to a character and then throttling up the tension and suspense by revealing that she's being watched and potentially in danger.
My only complaint with El Royale is that it loses a bit of steam in the third act with its 140-minute runtime. If you look at other films where characters are stuck in a confined space – 12 Angry Men (96 minutes), Lifeboat (96 minutes), Rope (80 minutes) – it's not easy for a thriller to sustain tension (and interest) for longer than two hours. Of course, there are exceptions, like Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, which is 168 or 187 minutes, depending on the cut. Goddard isn't Tarantino, but he's on his way. He writes great dialogue, has impeccable taste in music, and a knack for paying homage to cult films. And like The Hateful Eight, El Royale is shot on film with anamorphic lenses, giving the film an epic, Sergio Leone-esque quality.
Despite its pacing issues in the second half, the film is an absolute blast to watch, with great characters, gorgeous, neon-drenched cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, The Avengers, Godzilla, The Greatest Showman), and top-notch production and costume design by Martin Whist and Danny Glicker. Goddard's Bad Times at the El Royale is one of my favorite movies of 2018 thus far, and one of the best theatrical experiences I've had in a long time. I have a feeling audiences will really dig what Goddard is doing here – it's fun, fresh, and feels wholly original while also acting as a love letter to the thriller genre.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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