Bad Times at the El Royale finds writer/director Drew Goddard working in familiar territory. After his successful deconstruction of horror movie tropes in Cabin in the Woods, he returns with a film that deconstructs the crime/mystery genre. Using a familiar set up – a group of strangers arriving at an odd hotel – he sets up multiple MacGuffins, plots, and subplots. All the while, the situation at the El Royale continues to devolve, with Goddard pulling the rug out from under plots, merging them together, and subverting expectations. In the end, Bad Times at the El Royale delivers terrific genre thrills, consistently funny deadpan humor, and socially conscious themes in a unique package.
Opening at the El Royale, the camera is situated in a voyeuristic medium shot of a room. In walks Felix (Nick Offerman), carrying a bag, and silently going about his work. He moves the furniture, digs up the floorboards, and sticks the bag underneath. He then replaces the boards, moves the furniture back, and answers a knock at the door before being blown to bits by a shotgun blast. It is with this explosive first act that Bad Times at the El Royale sets up its first MacGuffin. For many viewers, they can see the pay-off coming a mile away. After jumping ahead ten years as guests arrive at the hotel, the audience thinks they know where it is headed: everyone is there for the bag, but no one will get the bag. As the film dives into the various characters at play and their own backgrounds via a series of flashbacks, Goddard introduces a few more MacGuffins and possible directions the film could take, including a secret (and valuable) tape recording and a kidnapping.
Goddard throws every genre trope into this pot, discarding them like Psycho‘s first half, and then moving onto the next one. The only commonality between each plot is that Goddard refuses to play to expectations. When the audience begins to feel comfortable, as is the case with the opening, he immediately lets them know this is not that film. This is embodied in the seemingly familiar, nostalgia-draped hotel where the action takes place. However, inside and out, it is not familiar at all. It is divided in half between the California and Nevada sections, offering rooms and different services (alcohol in California, gambling in Nevada) in both states. The El Royale is a place seemingly set apart from the world, filled with opportunity and grandiose designs, yet also filled with decisions to make for both the characters and the audience. It is this hotel that will not only be the staging ground for the plot, but also as a symbol of the drama the characters will face.
After meeting in the parking lot, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) walk inside, with the camera twisting around them to reveal the hotel itself. Largely symmetrical and centered on the state line, it is this apparent perfection that will be slowly undermined. Immediately greeted by Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a man with a decidedly out-of-place Southern accent, Father Flynn and Darlene learn of the first few oddities. Not only does Laramie demand to have the Honeymoon suite, but he has been waiting in the lobby for hours on an absent receptionist. Laramie launches into a monologue about the lush history of the El Royale, complete with gambling, celebrities, and a bad song written by Dean Martin.
As Bad Times at the El Royale builds out its plot, Goddard plays fast and free with genre cliches. Consistently, he uses these and the familiarity they create as a misdirection. Plot threads are cast aside, forgotten, or flat-out disappear. There are setups without a pay-off, frustrating audiences with the apparent lack of certainty in any single thread. Goddard is indulgent in this, using this messy plotting as mere window dressing for a larger examination of the genre as a whole. He focuses in on the hidden force that drives the genre, which serves as both voyeur and influencer. The audience is put alongside this entity and made to watch what happens, gaining sympathy for every character as they get moved around and toyed with as though they were characters in Sims. As the characters themselves discover the voyeuristic nature of this hotel, they are simultaneously repulsed and intrigued, finding it hard to not watch as someone lives their life in ignorant bliss. No matter how much sorrow is witnessed, it never ceases to be fun to stand back and watch.
Bad Times at the El Royale is ultimately a film about choice. Which MacGuffin is driving the plot? Who is the lead? What is the plot? Who is good and bad? Which part of the hotel do you want to stay in, California or Nevada? Which room is the money in? Do you sell the secret recording of a dead politician? Do you partner with one of the other residents? The hotel can barely make up its mind, split between the two states it occupies. A flashback to cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) finds him railing against the choices people are forced to make, reasoning that while one makes these decisions, those in power steal what they have because they are distracted. By not making a definitive choice with any of the aforementioned questions, Goddard aims to drive the audience’s attention away from these choices and onto what else is going on. He wants viewers to see the voyeurism, the terror, and the very human characters who get swallowed up in the chaos the genre creates. Instead of being distracted by the surface-level thrills, he wants the audience to grapple with how much they might be like Billy Lee. He is the antagonist, yes, but he gets sadistic entertainment out of toying with people, exploiting them for his own personal gain. He traffics in human suffering, but is that not what the genre provides the audience?
Even as Goddard pulls back the curtains on the genre, he is still able to represent what makes it so thrilling. It is not just a great genre deconstruction, but also a terrifically fun piece of pulp. Each character’s backstory and usage in the plot proves quite thrilling, engaging, and entertaining. Bad Times at the El Royale works, whether as Laramie works through his story with Jon Hamm jumping between his cheery Southern gentleman act and his true Don Draper-like self, as the truth behind the money is revealed, or as Goddard drives up the tension regarding the mysterious “management” and the role they play in recording illicit acts in the rooms. It may be using these plot lines as a means of critiquing of the genre, but the film’s success rests in Goddard’s ability to simultaneously entertain the audience with these plots before ultimately casting them aside.
Amidst all this chaos, Goddard works in some unexpected themes, namely the will to overcome suffering or abuse. Father Flynn has dementia. Miles is suffering from PTSD as well as immense religious guilt over the people he has killed. Darlene is contending with issues in the music industry, making her ashamed of who she is as a person. Emily (Dakota Johnson) suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her father in a failed attempt to defend her sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny) from sexual abuse. Lewis Pullman, Jeff Bridges, and Cynthia Erivo really stand out in the quiet moments created by these issues, capturing the humanity within their flawed characters.
Smartly exploring the genre, the late 1960s, nostalgia, and choice, Bad Times at the El Royale is blessed with a terrific cast and possesses a surprisingly poignant set of themes to bolster its pulpy genre thrills. This is a thrilling, smart, and exceedingly clever film. Deconstructing mystery thrillers and reveling in the ruins, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale may be a little too long, but it is a ride so often worth taking that it earns the journey.