Drew Goddard’s entertaining and enthralling thriller is one of the underappreciated gems of 2018
I first caught Bad Times during one of it’s early screenings along the festival circuit at Fantastic Fest last September. Embraced by the crowd, the film failed to set the box office alight on general release. Even with positive word of mouth, a banging trailer, and a stellar cast. Sometimes good films fail to find an audience initially, time aiding appreciation and feeding cult status, which I hope is the case here, and with it’s home video release this week, you now have an opportunity to correct the mistake of missing one of the gems of 2018.
Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm and Chris Hemsworth lead an all-star cast in this powerful thriller filled with gripping suspense and startling revelations. Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption…before everything goes to hell.
The El Royal, once a grand establishment, now fallen into some disrepair. A casino/hotel located bang on the border between Nevada and California, the building split into to, each half aesthetically inspired by it’s respective state, and beholden to it’s laws. As such gambling allowed on one side and drinking allowed on the other, it’s a setting that does much to mirror the two-sidedness of the players of the film. Guests madeup of a a priest (Jeff Bridges), a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, wow), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson). The only official hotel representative remaining is Miles (Lewis Pullman), serving as a nervous concierge/bartender/porter/camera operator. Yes, that last one alludes to a special feature of the El Royale, a series of two-way mirrors that allow observation of guest activities, and exploitation by the mysterious owners of the hotel. As this new crowd of guests arrive, each driven by their own agenda, a massive storm isolates them, subterfuge is discovered, and their secrets, unknown connections, and motives start to become apparent.
The voyeuristic aspect of the film, something that harkens back to writer/director Drew Goddard’s superb debut feature The Cabin in the Woods. A film that blew open the horror genre, cheekily answered some of questions begat by the genre over the years, while being brilliantly entertaining too. Bad Times looks to do similar things with the thriller genre, being intricately crafted, playing with shifts in perspective, and a entertaining romp along the way. Agatha Christie meets Tarantino is a rather clunky, if not entirely inaccurate way of describing the end product. While the narrative is rather intricate, much of the shifts come from the characters, with layers peeled back, new information and motivations garnered, your position on who is good, who is bad, upended along the way. Obviously it’s never as clear-cut as that, the film largely staying within the grey moralistic area.
Bad Times brings together a great ensemble of characters, all charming or interesting in their own way, depicted by actors leaning into their strengths. Jon Hamm doing his smooth/dumb/dark shifts like only he can, Jeff Bridges doing the gruff misfit with a sympathetic aspect, and Dakota Johnson further showing her quietly spoken ability to hold your attention. Chris Hemsworth looks to be having the most fun as a hippyish cult leader with a brutal edge, a presence that polarizes the film in its endgame. The main standout is undoubtedly Cynthia Erivo, who not only gets to wow with her vocal talents, but solidifies her screen presence with a speech against the patriarchy towards the films climax that is riveting. An empathetic and often fiery presence, her work here and in Widows mark her as one to watch. An additional standout is Lewis Pullman (son of Bill), who demonstrates an affable char throughout, but is also involved in a flashback initiated set-piece in the final act that is one of the highlights of the film.
Goddard doesn’t seem as interested in paying homage to the genre so much as pushing a sense of uncertainty and unpredictability . A script weaving together a kidnapping, a bank heist, an FBI investigation and more, with a myriad of intriguing and well realized characters. The setup is rather entertaining, but when the pieces are in place and Goddard lets these characters loose on each other, the film goes up another notch. The film has plenty to juggle, but does luxuriate a little at times, despite this the 2 hours 20 minute runtime is just about warranted. It perhaps lacks an edge that was often apparent in Goddard’s earlier work, think the latter seasons of Angel, Cloverfield, or The Cabin in the Woods. The grey gives way to more redemptive turns for many, as if a darker (and perhaps more fitting) resolution was burnished down. Despite this, it’s a stylish accomplishment, aided by cinematography from Seamus McGarvey, and an atmospheric score from Michael Giacchino, both befitting the pulpy roots of the era. The perfect backdrop to the smart dialogue, twisty narrative, emotional beats, and streak of dark humor the runs through Bad Times at the El Royale.
Bad Times at the El Royale is one of the better looking films you could have seen on screens in 2018 and this transfer maintains that rich quality. A moody and stylish thriller, with deep dark blacks, vibrant retro colors, and a nice level of grain. The set and design of the film is remarkably well crafted, for narrative as well as aesthetic, so it’s great to see it shown off here. Extra features egregiously lack a commentary from Goddard, which would undoubtedly be a fascinating listen, instead we have:
- Making Bad Times at the El Royale: A ~30 minute featurette largely focusing on writer/director Drew Goddard discussing his inspiration for the film, his approach, as well as many aspects of the production. Various cast mmbers also contribute. It all reveals aspects of the set design, script development, technical approaches such as camera types, musical choices & compositions and how they dictated scenes, and more. A well put together extra
- Gallery: 40 images from the film
- Teaser Trailer
- Theatrical Trailer
The Bottom Line
Bad Times at the El Royale is a pulpy romp, a slick thriller that smartly rearranges itself and your perceptions as it unfolds. A film expertly crafted by Drew Goddard, who uses a superb ensemble to enthrall as well as entertain. An underappreciated gem from 2018 that deserves your attention.
Bad Times at the El Royale is available on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD from January 1st