Movie Reviews: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Drew Goddard got his start on TV writing for the final seasons of Buffy, Angel, the final two of Alias, and during the first four of Lost.  He’d make the jump to features with his script for the man behind those last two projects on J.J. Abrams’s Cloverfield, it was his directorial debut that saw him truly breakout.  Co-written with the other man who gave him his start, Joss Whedon, Cabin in the Woods was an amazing deconstructionist satire and fun horror film in its own right that should have been the start of a great career.  Since then, however, Goddard’s career has been largely stagnant, a number of projects that were nearly made or that he left.

Six years after that film (or even longer considering Cabin in the Woods had been delayed before release), we finally have his follow up.  Like that film, this one is filled to the brim with easily spoiled bits and so I will endeavor to avoid as many as I can with the review.  Set at the El Royale hotel in 1970, the movie is an ensemble and heavily chapter based.  The hotel is situated on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada near Lake Tahoe on the border of California and Nevada.  Guests can stay on either side, not that it matters anymore since the Nevada side lost its gambling license.

The four guests are friendly Father Daniel Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges), talkative salesman Laramie Sullivan (John Hamm), shy Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), and disinterested in the rest of the people Emily Fuck You (Dakota Johnson).  The entire place is staffed by a single heroin addicted clerk (Lewis Pullman) who mostly just seems to leave the place run to itself.  Each chapter focuses on a different room or outside location and the corresponding person, revealing more secrets about them and the place.

TRAILER SPOILERS1

The twists pile up from here, but the film never gets near as wild as Cabin in the Woods.  That’s far from a bad thing as the movie does best when it sticks to its small cast .  When it starts hooking in a whole other plotline featuring a charismatic Mansonian cult leader played by Chris Hemsworth is when the films 141-minute length starts to let its presence really be felt.  Even beforehand, the movie struggles to maintain its unsteady genre blend and wobbles in trying to maintain the tension.  The characters are compelling (aside from Hemsworth’s oddly enough), more so than they seem based on both their types and even what you’d Goddard’s propensity to subversion would do to them, but they work more so when interacting with each other than in trying to build up tension to the next reveal.  There were a lot of vague promises of mysteries, but for most of them I could not bring myself to care.

It’s hard to complain about the needle drops as obvious as the picks may be considering they are at least good songs (and it makes sense in context) and TRAILER SPOILERS2  It’s also a visually impressive film, making great use of color and effortlessly handling all the various genres within except SPOILER SPOILERS3  Bad Times at the El Royale very much feels like it is from the director of The Cabin in the Woods spiritually, but it is too aimless to come anywhere near it in quality or even achieve a consistent level of entertainment.