By Jack Dignan
Checking into a new Drew Goddard film is far from a bad time. He’s the man behind The Martian, World War Z and The Cabin in the Woods, the latter of which he served as director. Six years have passed and Goddard’s back in the director’s seat with a crime mystery that’s as pulpy as its retro title suggests. Seven strangers have found themselves all tied together in the fictional El Royale, a hotel situated on the border of Nirvana and California, but if you’ve seen Goddard’s previous directorial effort you’ll know that a simple premise is bound to lead to so much more.
Mystery, mayhem and murder are all to be found in this unpredictable ensemble movie that harkens back to the Tarantino of old (although, to be fair, the Tarantino of old is very much like the Tarantino of today, so don’t be surprised when you find a few modern comparisons too). Its seven main characters find themselves confined to (mostly) one location as their dark pasts and hidden secrets unfold over a single night. Goddard’s script bounces back and forth between perspectives, timelines and shocking acts of violence in a way that’s far too juicy not to enjoy. It’s already pretty great and then a shirtless hippie Chris Hemsworth shows up to drive this baby home.
It’s your usual lineup of characters; there’s a dodgy priest played by Jeff Bridges, an over enthusiastic salesman played by Jon Hamm, a timid singer played brilliantly by soon-to-be superstar Cynthia Erivo, a suspicious clerk played by Lewis Pullman, and a violent femme fatale played by Dakota Johnson, who continues to prove my theory that all of the Twilight and Fifty Shades actors are sensationally talented in films outside of their respective franchises. They all serve a purpose, but nobody is who they claim to be. It’s up to us, the audience, to choose who to trust, and Goddard is effective in not letting us in on who they really are until just the right moment.
Best of all? It all takes place in a perfectly moody and frequently questionable hotel that works as a perfect set piece for this gloriously larger than life thriller. The opening scene alone tells you just enough about this place to have you invested, without even revealing a single thing about it (not even the name, but I guess it’s not too hard to guess what that is…) Divided into several chapters, the narrative allows brief flashbacks to a time before these characters arrive at the hotel, all of which makes for a fantastic experimentation with structure, as well as a hilariously unexpected cameo from French director Xavier Dolan, but the best stuff is saved for the hotel, and Goddard brings the goods. Once you get to Hemsworth’s introduction, this film elevated to a whole new level. Sadly, not everything manages to be quite that good.
Things get off to a numbingly slow start as we’re forced to slump through endless setup and characterization, and it lasts nearly as hour. The film clocks in just shy of two and a half hours and you can feel it. Endless introductions and character names are effective in planting seeds for a joyous payoff, but in the moment the going gets rough. There’s a glorious five-minute tracking shot featuring the entire cast that’s absolutely spellbinding and devious in its reveals, yet at the same time not consistently interesting enough to maintain constant engagement. All round, however, Seamus McGarvey’s colourful cinematography works wonders when paired with a catchy soundtrack and a fresh new score from personal favourite of mine, Michael Giacchino.
It may take a while to kick into gear, but boy, when it kicks it pounds. Bad Times at the El Royale is a clever and shocking thriller with rich characters all interacting in the most enjoyable of ways. The screenplay doesn’t quite have enough edge to warrant its many Tarantino-length conversations, but before you know it you’ll find yourself in absolute awe at the masterful filmmaking unfolding before your eyes. If it were a 100 minute long movie, this thing would be a masterpiece. As it stands, there’s still plenty to enjoy, and I will happily add it to my blu-ray collection in the months to come.
3 1/2 Stars
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