There is a unique voice lurking deep within Bad Times at the El Royale.
Fans Drew Goddard (“Lost,” The Cabin in the Woods) may be disappointed to find that as the writer-director of Bad Times at the El Royale he has gone more Tarantino than Twilight Zone. The bigger surprise, however, is that he mostly pulls off this stylistic shift, creating a visually complicated, character-driven and frequently-thrilling mystery that drips with atmosphere.
The film opens with an effectively funny and shocking cameo performance by Nick Offerman (“Parks and Rec”) as a bank robber who hides his loot under the floorboards of a motel room before getting his brains blown out. The story jumps 10 years forward to 1969 at the El Royale motel, now nearly abandoned. Lounge singer Darlene Sweet (stage actress Cynthia Erivo), a priest named Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and traveling salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) all arrive at the motel where a concierge (Lewis Pullman) explains that they can stay on either the Nevada or California side of the establishment. The El Royale was built directly on the border between the two states, and a large red line bisects the property, a detail that provides many of the film’s quirkier jokes.
The last of the guests is the beautiful, cruel Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), who provides a much-needed jolt to the film’s first half. Johnson takes on the suspicious eyes and wary walk of a seasoned criminal, which proves even more effective when Emily’s true motivations are revealed. She doesn’t arrive alone, dragging along her impressionable younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny).
While Emily initially appears to be the villain, the Summersprings’ presence at the El Royale opens the door for the arrival of cult-leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), the film’s real baddie and one of the few major missteps in Goddard’s otherwise sturdy, if overlong, script. While all of the other primary characters are complicated, multi-faceted creations, Billy Lee is a stock bad guy—but pretty, as Hemsworth’s glistening pecs are on full display whenever he appears. But Hemsworth, attempting to express Billy Lee’s volatility, has rendered him childish rather than charismatic.
Still, the conclusion forces Darlene and Daniel Flynn together, and Erivo and Bridges make a magnetic onscreen duo. They build chemistry as the two reluctantly become friends, and their bond really drives the final act. Goddard wisely uses the Tony-winning Erivo’s musical talents to excellent effect, particularly when she sings as Bridges tries to break open a motel room floor. Erivo is outstanding in her big screen debut, immaculately playing a character with a powerhouse voice but a vulnerable soul. The character of Darlene is a bit problematic, however. Goddard makes some moves towards describing African-American life at the time, but as other characters refer to Darlene in racially charged terms, it just makes them seem like assholes. This is frustrating, particularly as Darlene is the only significant nonwhite character.
As previously mentioned, Johnson also delivers a standout performance, turning in her best work ever as an understandably violent woman. Dark, complicated roles like this and Penelope in A Bigger Splash are much more suited to the actress than romantic comedies and whatever you call 50 Shades. Relative unknown Pullman is unexpectedly heartbreaking as the El Royale’s long-suffering concierge.
Though the film wears its Tarantino inspiration on its sleeve right down to the titled chapters and frequent collisions between bullets and heads, there is a unique voice lurking deep within Bad Times at the El Royale. The villain and overall narrative are a bit lacking, but the other characters and the atmosphere of the El Royale itself make up for it. It’s a film with a surprisingly big heart, and its differences from Goddard’s previous work make it even more exciting to think about where the he may go next.