Bad Times at the El Royale’s writer/director is about the same age as me. It is no coincidence then that his iconic cinematic touchstones are the same as mine. Drew Goddard and I were both in our early twenties in the mid nineties so, as much as we can admire them retrospectively, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde are not our classic movies. We started to become the adults we are today watching Pulp Fiction, LA Confidential and The Usual Suspects.
Bad Times at the El Royale feels very reminiscent of these films and the movie has real nostalgic value, not for the late sixties era it smartly captures, but for that time two decades or so later. Like the best movies released from 1994 to 1997 (a period that also includes Heat, Seven and the first Mission Impossible) Goddard’s film has strong characters that are very slightly too cool but endearingly amoral. It has a really sharp script, it has impressive set design, it has tangible intrigue, it has suspense, it could go in any direction at any time with none of the players guaranteed to make it to the closing credits, it has beautiful cars and a great soundtrack. I have no idea how it would play to a younger or markedly older audience but I suspect it isn’t aimed at them. As my hair greys and the impressive knowledge of actors and directors that my friends know me for becomes harder to recall I am now rarely the chosen demographic for big studio movies. With this one I think I must be though and while I could never it love like I loved those other films simply because I didn’t have the poster hanging on the wall of my first flat, I did like it a lot.
The El Royale of the title is a motel straddling the border of California and Nevada. On the night the film is set it has just four guests; John Hamm’s Hoover rep, Jeff Bridges’ priest, Cynthia Erivo’s singer and Dakota Johnson’s mystery woman. Each of them has their own agenda beyond finding a warm and dry place to stay and very soon they start to get in the way of one another’s plans. None of them, needless to say, are the type to step aside. The performances are all delightful but totally different and each of them defy your original assumptions about them as the narrative progresses. The truths of Bridges’ and Hamm’s characters are not that surprising but their behaviours sometimes are and Johnson shows again that she is better playing it wry than straight. I found Johnson pretty unengaging in Suspiria and A Bigger Splash but she is the one redeemable thing about Fifty Shades of Grey and she is good here too. Other people come into play too, including Chris Hemsworth in a rare bad guy role, but to say much more about any of them would be a spoiler. Hemsworth’s Billy Lee does come across as a little extreme until you remember your American history and some of the high profile murders that occurred in 1969.
In the end the film probably belongs to my old contemporary Drew though. The story is simple but satisfying and the writing very different but no less assured than his other work scripting The Martian, The Cabin in the Woods, Daredevil, Cloverfield and parts of Buffy. Despite it being his first solo film credit though the directing is also strong. There is one single shot moving down a single corridor and looking through a series of windows that shows particularly impressive control of the filmic medium but actually his lensing is generally unshowy yet subtly skilled. With this film referencing the work of others Goddard has quietly announced himself as a new and original talent in contemporary cinema
The Ripley Factor:
Also in Goddard’s favour is his championing of gender balanced casts. If you look back at his previous scripting gigs mentioned above you’ll see that he has always written strong parts for women. This is perhaps unsurprising for a regular collaborator of Joss Whedon but actually I get the impression that this is why he worked with Whedon rather than it being because he did. The females that Goddard pens are actually a lot more real than any vampire slayer. Daredevil’s Karen Page, The Martian’s astronauts and other NASA staff and even the ladies that face off against monsters in Cloverfield and Cabin in the Woods all show strength without having any special skills or superpowers.
Both Erivo’s Darlene and Johnson’s Emily stand up to great threats in this film too and neither of them are cheapened, objectified or sexualised which is no doubt a relief for Johnson considering the film that made her famous. In fact it is Hemsworth that dresses down and dances sexy, not any of the women.