One of the most famous things Alfred Hitchcock said about suspense–of which he is the cinema’s undisputed master–is that if people are talking at a table and suddenly a bomb goes off, the audience jumps, but if they see the bomb placed under the table before the people even sit down, then that’s suspense. It’s Chekhov’s gun, it’s someone hiding in the floorboards. It’s about teasing out information to the audience of some impending bad thing before the characters know anything. Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale has taken Hitchcock’s words to heart, and added about a million more fantastic elements to create one of the best thrillers in years.
It’s a set-up right out of the best of pulp novels: a group of unrelated, disparate people gather on a fateful night at a secluded location, each with their own demons to chase and secrets to bury. Slowly, they start to learn about each other, putting all of them at risk, before finally having hell itself break loose and no one sure to survive. Done boringly, this is a premise of dozens of direct-to-Netflix crime movies. Done as Goddard did, with an outstanding cast, a fascinating setting, a time period ripped from collective memory, and complex and harrowing characters–you have a Swiss timepiece of a movie.
The El Royale is a motor lodge set directly on the Nevada/California border. Much time is spent explaining that alcohol cannot be served on the Nevada side, but the rooms on the California side cost a dollar more. It’s some time in the late 1960s, the fashion and decor are loud, and the music is a mix of Motown and acid rock. We meet the roster of characters–an aged priest (Jeff Bridges), a young woman (Cynthia Erivo) who seems to be a lady of the night, a Savannah-sounding vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), and an over-it hippie (Dakota Johnson)–all getting rooms at the establishment for the night. We also meet Miles (Lewis Pullman), the young kid who’s evidently the only person working in the whole hotel. But, of course, all is not what it seems.
Almost as soon as that first scene concludes, with everyone getting a room, we start to learn the truth about them, each in turn. Finding out these facts and watching them unfold is one of the movie’s strongest elements, and the way Goddard chooses to reveal the truth is with the deliberate, steady hand of a student of the suspense and crime fiction greats. It subverts expectations by showing something, then showing it again from a different perspective, and even yet a third time from yet a different perspective. And each time, it’s suspenseful, even though we definitely know what’s about to happen.
Goddard co-wrote and directed the 2012 film The Cabin in the Woods, which took all the trappings of horror movies throughout history and created a meta, cosmic narrative about the nature of movies and the audiences frothing for what they demand. Here, though, he’s playing with all the familiar trappings of the crime movie but doesn’t blow it up, instead working within those systems and expectations, twisting stories and dilating time, to create something fresh, compelling, and necessary.
The El Royale is the center for some of the 1960s most infamous themes. There are allusions to the Cold War, the Manson Family, the far-from-won Civil Rights struggle, exploitative recording industry big wigs, and the trauma of the Vietnam War. Goddard puts archetypes and well-worn situations in conflict with each other, and asks us to decide who among the characters, no matter how bad their deeds, are worthy of our sympathy. Is anyone worthy of absolution, or is everyone damned to remain at the El Royale?
The cast is truly excellent, and bolsters Goddard’s script, which gives each character their moments to carry the movie. Bridges turns in another banger of a performance as an old man losing himself to time. Hamm owns the beginning of the movie like he’d been playing this character for decades, and though he’s repugnant from the get-go, he is undeniably watchable. Johnson dominates her storyline with a quiet strength that instantly establishes she’s the most dangerous one in the room, even if you’re not sure why. Chris Hemsworth’s presence looms large on the entire movie, and though he doesn’t immediately arrive at the El Royale, he’s a force of nature, the hand of doom coming for them all, in a role that’s as far from Thor as you can get.
But the beating heart of the movie, the soul of Bad Times at the El Royale, is Erivo, whose dream of leaving her crummy life behind for a career as a soul singer has her belting out top 10 hit after top 10 hit, totally a capella. In each of these performances, she’s raw, vulnerable, powerful, and unwavering in equal measure. Erivo won a Tony–and a Grammy and an Emmy–for her role in The Color Purple, and her voice and presence in this movie has me breathless for her next screen outing. She’s a capital-S Star and should be the lead of literally every movie.
Have I glowed enough? Bad Times at the El Royale is a tremendous work of popular cinema and is smart and innovative to boot. Its length never drags, and with each new wrinkle in the plot, we get a fuller understanding of the characters, so we want to keep spending time with them, even if we fret nonstop about what their ultimate fate might be. But at least we have a phenomenal needle-drop soundtrack to get us there. It might be the end of the line, but I want to check back in to the El Royale very soon.
4.5 out of 5
Images: 20th Century Fox