The mystery genre is a constant of the literary world, yet in the realm of cinema, such a story is rarely told, and those which are tend to be based on existing material. The exception to this norm comes from director Drew Goddard, who has crafted an original film not unlike a thrilling page-turner.
In Nixon-era America, slap-bang on the border of California and Nevada stands an ill-attended hotel called the El Royale. One evening, the quiet establishment finds itself busier than usual after the arrival of four guests: aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), Catholic priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), vacuum machine salesman Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and a Mercury-driving hippie named Emily (Dakota Johnson).
The four strangers are checked-in by bellhop Miles (Lewis Pullman), given the keys to their rooms and promptly head to them, with no intention of making conversation for the remainder of their stay. Once separated, it is revealed that none of these individuals are being truthful about their identities, with each having their secrets to keep. The characters’ stories unexpectedly intertwine as the evening continues, culminating in the arrival of cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).
An initial survey of Bad Times at the El Royale suggests it is adapted from a novel, since the plot is segmented into chapters and told in a non-linear manner; in actuality, the screenplay is the creation of Goddard, who is directing only his second feature-length film. His writing is masterful – every character is a puzzle, housing veiled motivations and an intriguing backstory, providing the picture with an aura of noir. As of such, the viewer is constantly left anxious as to what could happen next.
Goddard’s strength as a writer is matched by his directorial skills. Every frame in Bad Times is symmetrically shot, exquisitely lit and captures all it needs to; the entire cast gives a great performance – the film should make stars out of Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman; and the soundtrack demonstrates an impeccable taste in music, with orchestrations from Michael Giacchino and a literal jukebox of songs from the Sixties. Better still, the flairs of the decade extend to the costumes, cars and set decoration.
Superb and stylish though Bad Times may be, there is issue to be taken with its setting. Having a hotel placed on the California-Nevada border is a clever concept, and the first act is only too eager to point it out, but the cross-boundary nature of the building has no bearing on the narrative whatsoever. Given how much emphasis both the film and its marketing material place on the El Royale being a “bistate establishment”, one wonders why more use wasn’t made of it.
Bad Times can be quite a trying picture as well, especially for those who aren’t well-acquainted with the mystery genre. Moving at a very patient pace, it takes awhile before the film becomes suspenseful, but once that happens, it just builds from there – with each revelation, the thrills heighten and the story becomes ever more absorbing, even as the run-time passes the two-hour mark. Just like the books it emulates, it’s very easy to become lost in this film, leaving one longing to remain in it come the end.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a mystery frivolous in its execution. Writer-director Drew Goddard has made a creation to be proud of, one that it bright, nuanced and compelling, even with its noticeable flaws. Given this is just his second effort, Goddard’s best days are surely ahead of him.