Writer-Director Drew Goddard has grown a career with genre material: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Cabin in the Woods, The Martian. His writing lends itself to ensemble pieces, where every character is a piece of a puzzle. Bad Times at the El Royale is the largest and best puzzle yet.
The film is set in 1969 at the El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe. The hotel is a bit rundown and is split in the middle by the Nevada/California state line. The film begins with four strangers checking into the hotel: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a sweet older pastor; Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a young lounge singer; Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), an enthusiastic, yet slightly pompous salesman; and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a mysterious hippie. They’re all welcomed to the hotel by the young and seemingly naïve concierge, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). From there, each character’s backstory and secrets are revealed. No one is exactly what they seem, and the hotel holds just as many secrets as its patrons. These secrets slowly begin to unravel, leading to the arrival of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a frightening yet, charismatic character that is best left mysterious before viewing.
The film lives and dies by the performance of its ensemble, and the ensemble here is phenomenal. Bridges, Hemsworth, and Erivo hold the majority of the weight of the film, and their performances are award-worthy. In the past ten years or so, Bridges has shown he still has amazing talent, but most of his roles are two-dimensional older characters. El Royale gives Bridges meat to chew on, and he shines in every single moment on screen. In a similar fashion, Hemsworth has shown recently that he’s more than a pretty face to throw on a franchise poster. He’s got the ability to go from slapstick comedy to serious drama. Hemsworth is everything in this film. He’s funny, he’s frightening, he’s sexy; he’s everything. From the moment he comes on screen, you can’t look away.
The biggest player in this puzzle is Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet. Darlene is the heart and soul of the film. She’s the piece that makes the whole story worthwhile – the shining light in a sea of darkness. Erivo is able to hold her own in scenes with more experienced actors and, at times, outshines them completely. The film doesn’t center on Darlene. It is completely an ensemble piece where each character has their moment in the spotlight and all the pieces have to fit together to make it all work; but Erivo’s performance as Darlene might as well be the entire middle of the puzzle. I guarantee you that within the next few years Cynthia Erivo will be one of the biggest stars in the world.
The greatness of this film doesn’t stop at the cast. The production design is phenomenal, and the hotel is a place that I wish I could visit in person. It’s a location that feels so real and vibrant and yearns to be explored. The film is scored by Michael Giacchino–the man behind the scores for Up, The Incredibles, Doctor Strange, and the last two Planet of the Apes films. Giacchino is the next John Williams. There isn’t a single piece he’s done that doesn’t evoke every emotion possible. And his genius is just as evident here as it has been for every single other TV show and film he’s worked on for the past 20 years or so.
It would be almost criminal for me not to mention the cinematography for this film. The way Seamus McGarvey lights and shoots this movie is incredible. McGarvey and Goddard know when to leave the camera alone and let the actors do their magic. McGarvey knows how to slowly and ever so subtly use the addition of one light to slowly change the entire makeup of a frame. He can frame actors in the exact right way so that in one moment they can seem completely lost in the large world around them, and in the next, they’re the most important thing in the universe. It’s brilliant, and beautiful, and there are frames from this film that could hang in a gallery.
There’s so much about Bad Times at the El Royale that works and works extremely well. The film’s only fault is in its inherent mystery. There are a few things that are revealed about the characters at the start of the film that seem like they should be important but aren’t in the end. The film does enough throughout to make up for it, but the problem is going to show up no matter what. When you have a film where the truth to each and every element is hidden at first, and you have to slowly peel away everything and reveal the truth to the audience, some things are going to inherently seem important– but that doesn’t always mean they are. A film can come back from that if the rest of the movie hangs higher importance on the rest of the reveals, and this film completely does. El Royale isn’t destroyed by this flaw; it’s simply a slight blemish on an otherwise perfect picture.
I wish I could go into more detail on this film, especially on the depths and details of what Bridges accomplishes in his performance. I would love to detail some of the surprising cameos that never take you out of the film. I wish I could explain to you the frightening depths that the film goes to at the climax of the film. Things that aren’t- I can’t even continue… You need to see this movie knowing as little as possible. Just know that it is worth the price of admission. You’re probably going to want to see it multiple times, and it is fantastic on every level. This is one very large puzzle that is completely worth the time and effort.
Bad Times at the El Royale is currently playing in theaters.