Bad Times at the El Royale Review

Writer, director and producer Drew Goddard doesn’t get enough accolades, plain and simple. So here they are:

Goddard belongs in the same breath as Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams—two of his longtime collaborators (he wrote on “Buffy” and “Angel” for Whedon and then wrote and produced with Abrams on “Alias” and “Lost.”) He wrote “Cloverfield,” the movie that made Abrams’ Bad Robot brand synonymous with mystery and innovation. He received an Oscar nomination for adapting “The Martian” for the big screen. He created Marvel and Netflix’s critically lauded “Daredevil” series and is now an executive producer on the unique, boundary-pushing TV comedy “The Good Place.”

Yet somehow, “Bad Times at the El Royale” barely made a peep at the box office, even with a cast that includes Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson and Jon Hamm. And while this particular pet project won’t leave viewers buzzing in quite the same way as some of his previous accomplishments, Goddard delivers another astute example of mystery-building and storytelling that immediately pulls you in.

A contained location mystery, “Bad Times” takes place in 1969 at the titular motel, which lies directly over the Nevada-California border. In one evening, whom we presume to be a priest (Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Hamm) and a rebel (Johnson) converge at the motel, and their stories—as well as the motel’s story—are slowly revealed.

Goddard constructs this story in a way that every character has their own chapter, or parts of the story told from their perspective. Of course, these chapters are organized in such a way that maximizes mystery and creates unexpected revelations. A worthy comparison would be Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” only less claustrophobic and with more story components.

“Bad Times” doesn’t operate like a lot of high-concept mystery films, including some of Goddard’s other work, but it does continue to lure its audience deeper and deeper into the film with each carefully plotted turning point. Accenting the story are performances from actors adept at both façade and earnest drama, turning the film into a guessing game of who is actually “good” and who “bad.” Toying with those expectations is definitely one of Goddard’s goals.

Payoff will be the dividing line that splits audiences on this movie, namely whether there’s enough of one. The film will peak different curiosities among different viewers and not all questions are answered, or answered with a resounding amount of satisfaction. Nonetheless, Goddard delivers a story full of big ideas and big turns that remains perpetually watchable for its full 140-minute runtime.

4/5 Stars

Bad Times at the El Royale
Written and Directed by Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth


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