Drew Goddard is back in his deconstructionist comfort zone with the wildly entertaining, stylish 1960s romp with the awesome title, Bad Times at the El Royale. Like his prior film Cabin in the Woods, Goddard peels back the genre layers and forces his audience to act as voyeurs to all of the craziness he exposes. But even if you aren’t hip to every aspect of this wild genre mashup, there are so many big pulpy performances you’ll be checked in for the long haul.
The beauty of Bad Times at the El Royale is in the details, because it’s clear Goddard had so much fun creating them. From the 1969 setting, at the height of social paranoia about the country’s future, to the titular rundown hotel itself, every facet adds so much rich texture. Take the El Royale, which straddles the California and Nevada state lines with wholly different laws regulating whichever side the guest decides to stay in. Once a popular night spot frequented by Rat Packers and other Hollywood elites, the El Royale now resembles a cheap Howard Johnson’s, a last refuge for those in dire straits one way or another. It’s the perfect place for some shady dealing, shady characters, shady everything.
The clichés are all part of what’s great, and it starts right from the beginning as a criminal (played by Nick Offerman in a glorified cameo) buries a bag of cash in the seedy hotel’s floorboards. The characters who come hovering around in the wake of the shocking brutality that soon follows are also familiar archetypes of genre thrillers: Jeff Bridges plays the forgetful priest, Father Flynn; Tony winner Cynthia Erivo is troubled backup singer Darlene Sweet; Jon Hamm is motor-mouthed vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan; Dakota Johnson is badass hippy Emily who is lugging the kidnapped Rose (Cailee Spaeny) in the trunk of her car; all checking in with the creepy hotel cashier/clerk/tour guide/drug addict Miles (Lewis Pullman), who is entirely too enthusiastic for someone working at such a dump. It’s not a good sign, but then, do any of these people deserve a good sign? Surely some of them will not survive the night, but do any of them deserve the night of Hell that awaits? Maybe they all do.
Pinballing through multiple narratives, chapters, and perspectives you can see Bad Times at the El Royale as an echo of the Tarantino thrillers of the ’90s that inspired so many copycats. To be honest, it’s done so well here that I expect we’ll see their revival in some way soon. They’ll have a tough time matching Goddard’s delicate weaving of crime, espionage, horror, and musical tropes. Nor will they be able to boast a shirtless thunder god like Chris Hemsworth as a charismatic Manson-esque cult leader, who wanders into the hotel bringing anything but good vibes to the nocturnal proceedings.
While the deliberate pacing can be a drag and the overlong finale a bit of a buzzkill, figuring out the who’s who and what’s what of Bad Times at the El Royale is a huge part of its charm. Goddard may be treading on somewhat familiar turf for his sophomore effort, but he’s one of the best at it, and the only question now is what genre will he turn his attentions to next? With an X-Force movie in his immediate future we can only hope there are bad times in store for Marvel’s merry mutants.