Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Twentieth Century Fox
I’m not sure how Bad Times at the El Royale snuck up on me. All year long, I read movie bloggers, listen to podcasts and follow Twitter to determine what the buzz-worthy movies are, to make sure they are on my radar. I follow all the buzz coming out of festivals and conventions, and note all the movies with big name stars, directors or writers, to make sure not to miss them. On top of that, I follow Oscar season with breathless anticipation, as trying to guess the movies that will make the ultimate cut is almost more fun than playing the lotto. Sure, there are always movies that come out that I didn’t know about, but they are usually kids movies, horror movies or some other movie that the studios either want to bury or get out there with little fanfare, in order to avoid criticism. It is truly rare that a high-quality adult movie with movie stars gets released and I didn’t know about it. And yet, the first time I had ever heard of Bad Times at the El Royale was when I saw an ad on television for it. And, when I did, I was even more confused. What was this movie that looks like a cross between Tarantino and the Coens? Jeff Bridges is in it? Chris Hemsworth is shirtless in the rain? How did I not know about this movie? Is it a joke? Is it really bad? What is this movie and where did it come from?

Well, first of all, it comes from writer/director Drew Goddard. If you don’t recognize the name, you’ll recognize the credits. Goddard has been a writer for most of his career, mainly for television shows like Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Alias, as well as creating the Netflix series Daredevil. He broke out in movies as a writer/director in 2012 with the smash hit low-budget horror movie The Cabin in the Woods and then cemented himself in Hollywood by writing the screenplays for World War Z (2013) and The Martian (2015), earning an Oscar nomination for the latter. It would seem, from Goddard’s credits, that he specializes in stories with somewhat of a sci-fi, gory or fantastical bent. Which may be why Bad Times at the El Royale came out with such a low profile. If I had known Goddard was behind it before I saw the movie, I might have had some preconceptions about it. Instead, I went into it strictly based on the intriguing trailer, the cast and the late-building buzz that this was a movie worth checking out.

And that it is.

I only wish I could tell you about it. I went in as a blank slate and was rewarded for that with a movie-going experience that was unexpected, weird, wonderful and, even though it may not have been able to sustain all the way to the end, one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. And I don’t want to ruin that for you by spilling the beans.

But I will do my best to give you a sense of it, so you can then decide for yourself if it’s worth your time. The movie is set on the Nevada/California border, outside Tahoe, in the late ‘60s. It features several characters who meet up at an out-of-the-way hotel called the El Royale. Each character seems to have a secret, and the true beauty and joy of this movie is how those secrets get revealed to us, slowly, deliberately and perfectly. Goddard has created a noir puzzle, filled with mystery and intrigue, violence and foreboding. But it is also captivating as hell. The first thirty minutes or so of this movie were absolutely exhilarating. It feels like a play at first, the best kind of play that establishes character and place so perfectly. Similar to an Agatha Christie murder mystery, I found myself, while watching these opening scenes and meeting all the characters, trying to figure out who did it, even though I didn’t know what “it” even was. As everything is revealed, the movie does wander a bit and the last fifteen or twenty minutes aren’t as strong as the first, but by the time we get there, the ride has been so good, you hardly even notice that it’s gone slightly off track.

On top of all that, there’s the acting and production values. Goddard’s direction is perfect, as is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, the production design by Martin Whist and the music by the always-brilliant Michael Giacchino. The music in this movie alone is worth the price of admission. See it and you’ll understand.

But it is the cast that rounds out Bad Times at the El Royale and makes it such a delightfully dark and twisted confection. Even Dakota Johnson, who I had written off years ago as talentless, is almost good, which is high praise indeed. But the heavy lifting is done by the magnificent Jeff Bridges, who continues to remind us of what a national treasure he is. The movie is filled out by wonderful performances from Jon Hamm, the brilliant Cynthia Erivo (why isn’t she famous?), the solid Lewis Pullman and the aforementioned godlike Chris Hemsworth, who finds new ways to define movie star.

If you love the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Agatha Christie, or Alfred Hitchcock — or just love to be surprised by something dark, mysterious and gorgeous, you must run out to see Bad Times at the El Royale. Preferably on a dark and rainy night. Bad Times at the El Royale may have snuck up on me, but I won’t be letting it go for a long time.