Bad Times at the El Royale

(Goddard, 2018)


Thanks to a strong ensemble cast and unique cinematic voice, Drew Goddard’s second film as director proves that The Cabin in the Woods was not a fluke. Despite a six-year hiatus, Goddard has seamlessly re-entered into a space dripping in his own delightful, unique aesthetic. Riffing off the film’s retro sets and neo-noir atmosphere, Goddard subverts old tropes without relying on them. Bad Times at the El Royale is pulpy and campy, while still drifting into serious territory. What may seem like an Agatha Christie-esc whodunit is a surprising story with a lot bubbling underneath the surface.

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its cast. Jeff Bridges is terrific as Father Daniel Flynn, a priest with dementia who is in town to visit a family member. The other guests of the El Royale include Dakota Johnson’s Emily Summerspring, a girl on the run, and Jon Hamm’s Laramie Sullivan, a pompous vacuum salesman who is the only guest to have stayed at the El Royale before. Bridges, Johnson, and Hamm are all great in their respective roles, but the film’s standout performance undoubtedly comes from Broadway star Cynthia Erivo, who makes her feature film debut in El Royale. As Darlene Sweet, a down-on-her-luck soul singer, Erivo is able to make use of her greatest asset: her voice. But El Royale is not a jukebox musical (there is a jukebox though). Erivo’s singing is cleverly woven into the script, making it both essential to the film’s soundscape and plot. But on top of that, her acting is top notch. She flows through each scene with such grace, never revealing too much of what she is thinking. With what looks like a prominent role in Steve McQueen’s Widows later this year, it wouldn’t be surprising if Erivo soon adds an Oscar on her mantle next to her Tony. Another prominent performance comes from relative newcomer Lewis Pullman (son of Bill Pullman), who plays the hotel’s lone employee, Miles Miller. In a role that seems almost insignificant compared to Jeff Bridge’s priest or Hamm’s vacuum salesman, Pullman manages to bring an incredible amount of range. With a pouty baby face that would make Paul Dano blush, Pullman makes the most of his time on screen, giving a dedicated performance as the awkward and troubled hotel clerk. If there’s one thing you will leave the theater doing, it is Googling the names Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman.

Another thing you might leave the theater doing is thinking, “What the Hell did I just watch?” El Royale is not a mind-blowing movie by any means, but it does toy with your expectations quite a bit. The trailer for El Royale simultaneously misleads the audience while also revealing too many details, so I think the film is best viewed having not seen it. It also oversells Chris Hemsworth, whose part in the film is miniscule compared to that of the rest of the ensembled. That’s not a spoiler per se, as Hemsworth’s charismatic Billy Lee does loom over the entire film, even when he has yet to show his face. But the trailer makes it look like he is present for the majority of the film, when in reality he only plays a very small role. The trailer also sets you up with the expectation that this film is a whodunit in the vain of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. There is a great theme of keeping secrets and guarding one’s past, but there is no singular mystery to be solved here. This is not Clue. The mystery of El Royale is not “whodunit,” but “whoareyou,” as the audience is meant to speculate on the true identities of each character as the film progresses. That seems like a harder sell, so it’s easy to understand why the trailer was cut the way it was. However, the “whoareyou” plotline provides a deeper and more fruitful story than your typical whodunit. Goddard still uses tropes from the whodunit style (archetyped strangers in a confined space, forced to interact with each other as their true motives remain hidden), but he uses the style to explore character rather than plot. Unfortunately, this exploration into character has a tendency to muddle the plot a bit, with numerous flashbacks and repeated scenes from different perspective. However, the film’s chaptered structure does help keep things in order, and Goddard directs with such fluidity that the question of temporality (when each scene takes place in relation to each other) is almost nonexistent. Bad Times at the El Royale a worthy addition to the mystery genre, even if it doesn’t totally fit the mold.

Despite its overlong run time (141 minutes) and slightly convoluted narrative, Bad Times at the El Royale ultimately succeeds due to its talented cast and the subversion of the whodunit tropes. El Royale is a clear love letter to the Agatha Christie-style mystery, much in the same way that Cabin in the Woods was a love letter to horror movies. Goddard builds on the same tricks of the trade while simultaneously knocking them down. The film may be a bit too smart for its own good, but if you can stick it through to the end, you will find yourself pleasantly surprised at where El Royale ends up. ★★★★

David Merkle