Directed by Drew Goddard in his sophomore directorial effort since the 2012 horror-comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” “Bad Times at the El Royale” is all about the subtext. Each character the film introduces to you is easy to judge, based on their appearance. Look past the façade, however, and you’ll see another side-dark as hell, struggling with past trauma and misdemeanors, and begging for redemption. Not surprisingly, the film is quite like the characters its world houses. Goddard constructs a universe that’s at once borrowed and wholly original.
Juggling between genre exploration and genre-pastiche, the writer-director’s latest only furthers how fascinated he is with both structure and its subversion. Like with “The Cabin in the Woods,” he picks up a genre that’s lost its shine and shakes it up with some much-needed verve and insight. Much of this is possible due primarily to Seamus McGarvey’s (“Nocturnal Animals,” 2016) incredible cinematography that’s both stylized and visually lyrical. Paired with Michael Giacchino’s (“Speed Racer,” 2008) terrific score, it’s an audiovisual blast of sorts.
But that’s not all; there’s a lot of brilliant character work to find here. “Bad Times at the El Royale” boasts razor-sharp focus in its effort to establish every person living in the film’s world, and the non-linear structure surprisingly helps its case. It’s almost like Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorcese doped up on Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock’s contained storytelling before picking up Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” to remix. Whether or not it clicks with you depends—much like Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor”—on what you’re looking for in the movie, really.
Allow me to elaborate: the film has a dramatic buildup to the big reveal, and the big reveal is… well, without saying much, let’s just say it’s more intangible than tangible, and it’s really spectacular when it works for you (it did for me). If it doesn’t, the time you spent in your pursuit of the whys that surround the movie will feel pointless. The whys don’t matter here though; they never really did, right from the film’s opening scene. It’s not surprising, consequently, if a lot of viewers might find the narrative structure both contrived and convoluted (not to mention overlong).
Yet, with a cast as dazzlingly talented as Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water,” 2016), Dakota Johnson (“A Bigger Splash,” 2016), Cynthia Erivo (“Widows,” 2018), Jon Hamm (“Marjorie Prime,” 2017), Chris Hemsworth (“Thor: Ragnarok,” 2017), and his abs (also in “Thor: Ragnarok”), among others, there’s still a lot to admire. Erivo and Johnson shine as people carrying emotional baggage throughout their lives. That Erivo’s also a hauntingly talented singer works to the film’s benefit in one of the film’s most spectacular one-take scenes; one that needs to be seen to be believed.
At the end of the day, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is the kind of film you’ll either find absolutely groovy or despise till the end of time. Drew Goddard’s second film as a director in six years is, unmistakably, his own. Exploring the structure of film noir while also adding a whole lot of vigor in its telling, Goddard strikes gold as a writer-director of a movie that’s equally an exquisite cinematic mood piece and an astonishing exploration of pain, anger, and existential nihilism that plagues the world. We’re all going to die one day; we might as well cross lines and annihilate borders while we’re at it.