Drew Goddard seems to have had a run of bad luck. Though he made a significant name for himself in Hollywood with his highly original horror film, Cabin in the Woods, fortune hasn’t always favored him. He was slated to direct The Martian until Ridley Scott took an interest and naturally received priority. Goddard also planned a Sinister Six comic book, but that project sank after the failure of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Finally, after a long hiatus, he returns with Bad Times at El Royale. Fans of Cabin in the Woods may be in for an unexpected experience. Let’s break it down step-by-step.
Set in 1969, Bad Times at El Royale introduces us to a seemingly mundane hotel on the Nevada-California border. A young receptionist is preparing for yet another uneventful shift when an aging priest, an ambitious singer, a burly hippie, and a slightly sexist vacuum cleaner salesman arrive. They all seek rooms, a night’s sleep, and a hasty departure by morning. But luck isn’t on their side; not everyone will make it to daylight.
From the outset, it’s clear that not all is as it seems. Each character has secrets and plans they’d rather keep hidden, and even the hotel harbors a few surprises of its own. Goddard successfully assembles an ensemble of compelling characters in a confined space. It takes a while for the plot to fully unfold, leaving the audience in suspense about whom to root for, and who deserves to meet a violent end.
The film’s construction is heavily reminiscent of Tarantino’s narrative style. Though the characters in El Royale don’t spend much time together, the viewer has an informational advantage thanks to well-placed flashbacks. This approach adds layers of tension and unpredictability that last until the final moments.
The excellent cast also deserves credit for the film’s impact. With the gradual unveiling of each character’s secrets, the actors have ample opportunity to showcase their range. Jeff Bridges and the relatively unknown stage actress Cynthia Erivo particularly stand out. Moreover, Goddard captures the era’s ambiance effectively with well-chosen music and stylized visuals brimming with rain, neon, and vibrant colors.
So, what’s the catch? Perhaps it lies in expectations. Bad Times at El Royale offers a subtle twist on Tarantino-esque tales but falls short of the disruptive creativity showcased in Cabin in the Woods. By the halfway mark, I found myself waiting for something transformative to occur—a narrative upheaval akin to the final act of Cabin in the Woods—but it never came. This isn’t a criticism so much as an observation: Bad Times at El Royale is a bit more “conventional” than I had anticipated.
Despite losing some momentum in its final act, the film remains a highly intelligent, well-acted, and beautifully shot thriller. It surprises the audience multiple times with its deft storytelling and compelling dialogues. When I reflect on it, that’s not a small feat by any means.
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