The combination of outstanding performances, fantastic visuals, and a nostalgic soundtrack creates an immersive experience for the viewer in Drew Goddard’s ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’. Goddard’s résumé is chock-full of acclaimed hybrid horror films (including ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘The Cabin in the Woods’) and ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is no black sheep amongst this family.
The prologue immediately sets the stage for the film’s neo-noir dedication, with undeniable markers of the genre: an intense combination wide shot/long take reveals a mysterious man (Nick Offerman), clad in a fedora and trench coat, dismantling a hotel room while smoking a cigarette. Clearly up to no good, the man’s actions plant a multitude of questions in the audience’s mind. Just as it seems those questions might be answered, our guy is suddenly and shockingly murdered, via a shotgun wound, blood splattering the camera lens.
Flash-forward roughly a decade, the main story begins as a priest (Jeff Bridges) and a singer (Cynthia Erivo) arrive at the El Royale hotel, situated on the California-Nevada border. Once the best-kept secret of America’s elite, the El Royale has lost its gleam and wonder and struggles to stay in business. With the addition of a racist vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), and a California hippie (Dakota Johnson), the patrons of the El Royale settle into their respective rooms, along with their respective secrets.
With an exposition like this, ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ sounds like the setup to a cheesy joke. But, this is far from the truth. The characters, all bordering on stereotypical, are instead illuminated by the complex performances of the cast. Their environment, the ornately decorated El Royale caught in the middle of a thunderstorm, only further lends to an atmosphere of tonal decadence. And the relentless fight between darkness and neon light drags the film to a more sinister place than expected from a traditional noir thriller.
The film relies heavily on secrets and suspenseful twists, and mostly delivers on this front. There are plenty of alarming moments early on, leaving the viewer with a sense of uneasiness for the remainder of the film. However, this on-edge viewing experience may leave some feeling unfulfilled, especially those whose interests lean more towards traditional violence & gore. While the film definitely packs more of a punch than that of other contemporary murder mysteries (think ‘Murder on the Orient Express’) and rightfully earns its ‘R’ rating, it might not go far enough for some audiences.
If you’re looking for a film to challenge your detective skills and fulfill your 60’s-aesthetic desires, buy a ticket for ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’, as it will enthrall from beginning to end. Still not convinced? Click here to watch the trailer and decide for yourself if it is a movie worth watching.