While Drew Goddard’s latest directorial effort isn’t as memorable as his horror deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods, the neo-noir thriller Bad Times at the El Royale still offers a solid showcase for its talented cast, a soundtrack fueled by a dynamite selection of period-appropriate songs, and a quirky setting that serves the story well.
Street Date 1/1/19;
Box Office $17.84 million;
$29.98 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity.
Stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Shea Whigham.
Writer-director Drew Goddard scratches an itch to play in the noir sandbox with Bad Times at the El Royale, a breezy mystery that coasts on some nice directorial touches and the strength of its cast.
Not as engrossing or genre-bending as Goddard’s previous directorial effort, The Cabin in the Woods, Bad Times at the El Royale is more of a Tarantino-esque thriller that brings a group of strangers into a remote location and then reveals they aren’t quite who they claim to be.
The caper takes place at the El Royale hotel of the title, a former hotspot straddling the California-Nevada border that lost its popularity after losing its gambling license. The setting is apparently based on the real-life Cal-Neva Lodge, a Lake Tahoe hotspot that has seen its own troubled history. It also brings to mind the hotel managed by Tony Curtis in 40 Pounds of Trouble that was situated close enough to the stateline so he could see the Cali detectives waiting to nab him for missing alimony payments.
In the first scene we bear witness to Nick Offerman tearing up the floorboards in one of the rooms to stash a bag of what is presumably money, then restoring everything to its original condition before he gets shot by a shadowy associate.
Several years later, in 1969, a disparate group of travelers arrive, including a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a runaway (Dakota Johnson) and a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo).
Thanks to flashbacks, a non-linear story structure, and a hidden corridor that looks into all the rooms unbeknownst to the guests via a two-way mirror, we soon learn their true identities, and what brought them to the El Royale (including who is after that floorboard cash).
Things heat up a bit with the arrival of a cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) looking for some missing “property” of his own.
In a good 29-minute behind-the-scenes featurette included as the only extra on the Blu-ray, Goddard discusses several reasons why he wanted to make this film. One was to assemble a talented cast and give him an excuse to pitch something to Jeff Bridges.
Another was the chance to explore the music of the genre and experiment with ways to tie the songs into the story. Goddard even refers to the film as a love letter to music and an appreciation for the ways it changed his life.
The featurette also provides some great insights into the production design and look of the film, such as how the filmmakers built the entire hotel on a soundstage in order to accomplish the shots they needed to get. There’s also some fascinating tidbits about the film’s use of (and in some cases, omission of) color — a subtle touch that helps establish the mood for a story that at times can get extremely dark.
We also get to see some of Bridges’ on-set photography, a tradition of his dating back to the production of 1984’s Starman.