Nestled in the pine woods not far from Lake Tahoe stands the El Royale Hotel, a palace of kitsch bisected by the Calif.-Nev. border where guests can choose which state they would like to stay in. In the ’50s it was quite the happening place, but today it stands silent and empty, taking only the occasional guest — a monument to a bygone era of bright-eyed American optimism. This is where writer-director Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) lays his scene in his new film “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Set over the course of one night, the film follows six strangers, the only guests at the eponymous hotel. Among them is an aging priest (Jeff Bridges, “Only the Brave”), a travelling vacuum-cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm, “Tag”) and a struggling jazz singer (Cynthia Erivo, “Widows”). Each of these people has a secret, and as the night drags on, the guests will learn that not all is as it seems at the El Royale.
I won’t mince words: “Bad Times” was the most fun I’ve had watching a movie all year. From start to finish, the film crackles with energy and an ever-building momentum that doesn’t let up until the credits roll. This is largely thanks to the film’s uber-talented cast which features incendiary performances from both its established A-listers and its up-and-comers. Particularly impressive are the performances given by Bridges and Erivo. Bridges brings surprising depth to his often gritty exterior as Father Daniel Flynn, a priest struggling with the onset of dementia. Erivo, meanwhile, gives the powerhouse performance of the film as Darlene Sweet, a jazz singer who never found her big break. Erivo all but disappears into the kind hearted but jaded singer who’s seen far too much injustice in her lifetime; she plays Darlene with energy, empathy and an unmistakable hint of rage at a world that has never seemed to give her a moment’s rest.
Throughout its nearly two and a half hour runtime (which, mind you, never once feels drawn out or tedious), the film draws on a number of stylistic inspirations ranging from the pulp serials and B-movies of the ’50s and ’60s to the character-driven action stylings of Quentin Tarantino. That said, to simply call the film a tribute piece and leave it at that would be wildly underselling the directing and storytelling chops of Drew Goddard. Unexpectedly one of the most visually enthralling films of the year, Goddard’s camerawork takes the audience creeping and swerving through the cavernous El Royale, no doubt a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic tracking shots in “The Shining.” What’s more, Goddard masterfully weaves a story that reaches a thematic depth which elevates the film beyond being just another style-over-substance venture. Goddard isn’t looking to merely replicate his favorite pulp films; he has got something to say.
Running through the film like the bright red line that runs through the middle of the El Royale is an exploration of binary choice. American society is all about binary choices: Coke or Pepsi, Apple or Android, liberal or conservative. But, Goddard asks, do any of these choices really matter? Does the outcome truly differ, or is the appearance of choice merely a tool with which to placate the everyman in a world that is moving increasingly out of his control? The El Royale’s entire business model is based on selling guests the (meaningless) choice between a room in Nev. and a room in Calif. This is where “Bad Times” truly separates itself from the pack in terms of “homage” films; Goddard writes with purpose and intent. The film is all about illusory facades — choice where there is no choice, kindness where there is hatred. It’s for this reason that the gaudy retrofuturist stylings of the ’50s should serve as the perfect aesthetic backdrop for the film; beneath the mask of post-war American prosperity and optimism lay a nation plagued with xenophobia, nationalism and racial unrest. Behind Dwight Eisenhower’s clean-cut military polish lay a government committing human-rights atrocities around the globe. The world of “Bad Times” exists to serve its story and its message, not the other way around.
Genre films are often dismissed by critics and cinephiles to the point where the label has become almost condescending. With “Bad Times at the El Royale,” Drew Goddard proves that production value, creative ingenuity and attention to detail need not be reserved for the latest Oscar-winning drama from Tom Hanks and company. The film deserves to be discussed as more than just a genre-homage, and if this film doesn’t generate any buzz come awards season, it will have been a criminal injustice. A complete thrill-ride from start to finish with a thought-provoking message to boot, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is undoubtedly one of 2018’s best releases.