This review is going to start off sounding like a PBS sponsor message, but hear me out.
A whole lot of what you like has been brought to you in part by Drew Goddard.
He started out writing for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show. Then he graduated to Lost. He kicked off the Marvel Netflix Defendersverse as the showrunner for Daredevil, taking writing credits on the first and second episodes of Season 1 — arguably the greatest lead-in of any superhero show in the history of television. He’s also executive producing The Good Place on NBC.
For the big screen, Goddard wrote Cloverfield and directed The Cabin in the Woods, which he co-wrote with Joss Whedon. He also adapted The Martian into a screenplay, getting nominated for an Oscar in the process, and took a turn on the draft of World War Z.
His current project, Bad Times at the El Royale, is the first bit of media we’ve seen brought to you — in whole — by Goddard. He wrote, directed and produced the film. This is pure, unfiltered Goddard, and while it does fall well short of the top genre-defining moments of his career, it’s worth sticking around to the very last plot twist. Though, honestly, it’s not any fun to watch if you’re making predictions along the way. The movie is at its best when you let your guard down.
The credits feature an ensemble cast of well-respected stars essentially at the height of their powers. The most noteworthy is probably action star Chris Hemsworth, though his role doesn’t flower until the film’s climax. Bad Times also features would-be Batman John Hamm, Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades fame and Parks and Rec’s iconic man’s man Nick Offerman.
But the three most memorable performances definitely belong to Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges and lesser-known stars Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman.
The marketing for the film was unavoidable in my household. Teaser spots for the movie blew up my Hulu as we binge-watched Castle Rock over the past couple weeks. I must have seen Bad Times promos 20 times over that span, and yet, until seeing the movie, I was really in the dark about the plot of the film outside of a couple of details.
It’s all taking place at a hotel near Lake Tahoe circa the late 1960s. It’s violent. Bridges is a priest who’s not a priest. Erivo is a singer. Hamm is wearing eyeglasses. Johnson has a southern accent, and Hemsworth has a righteous mustache and at least one scene with his shirt off, a wise marketing decision considering there’s a whole swath of people probably sold on seeing the film for that alone.
They’re seven strangers picked to live in a hotel when things suddenly stop being polite and start getting real.
Point being, the movie was sold on the star power of its cast in the interest of seemingly shrouding the plot in mystery. You could go looking for clues, sure. And you’d surely find some solid speculation as to what role each actor plays in the film.
Still, watching Bad Times expecting to have your mind blown by a grandiose conspiracy or a creepy mystery is a pretty unsatisfying way to go about digesting it. Oh, there are some twists you won’t see coming that will have you flinch with shock and make you wonder hard about each character’s motivations. But the real answers to those questions are not nearly as interesting as the marketing may have you believe.
As for the characters, they are all mostly introduced in an extended meet-cute that unfolds following a mysterious prologue and a lengthy time jump. From there, each character in the ensemble gets a backstory sequence that somewhat explains their motivations.
The technique tries to do justice to each member of the cast, but it doesn’t quite work for every character. The flashbacks fill the story gaps, but they don’t offer enough character development or emotional groundwork. It leads to a couple of moments played as tear-jerkers at the end to pretty much fall emotionally flat. We simply can’t get enough time with each of the characters — even in the methodical 2-hour, 20-minute runtime — either before they’re gone or their story is complete.
Getting back to the acting performances. Erivo has a terrific climactic dialogue with the film’s antagonist where she proves to be the only one capable of breaking down his façade. Her defiant delivery is enough to make you fist pump in your soul.
Pullman plays the mysterious and tortured hotel clerk with so much honesty in his face you feel guilty for all your theories about him throughout the movie. Like I’ve said many times at this point, don’t bother with the theories.
And Bridges gives a trademark Jeff Bridges performance, the kind we’ve come to expect from him through so many classic portrayals. This will certainly not be his most memorable, but as he inevitably does in each of his projects, in the midst of it, you’ll forget he ever played anyone else before.
Hemsworth particularly impresses with his Californian accent. Since he’s long been the star of Marvel’s Thor and Avengers franchises, I was afraid all I was going to hear when the Australian actor spoke was the son of Odin’s voice booming out. Not so. Instead, I was mesmerized by hearing Hemsworth’s voice sound like never before, as a genuine member of my home state. He’s really stepped up his American accent since the last time he and Goddard teamed up for The Cabin in the Woods.
Speaking of sound, it’s something that’s so important to the film. Several of the scenes hinge on Erivo’s singing ability. And the soundtrack features a track list of titles that transport you directly back to the ’60s. Even the scenes where you don’t think you hear anything are stuffed with whipping, moaning winds and crashing raindrops.
For all of the good the film packs in, and the measures of disappointment for that matter, it all adds up to an overall product that’s enjoyable but not exactly iconic, which is only fair to say because it’s coming from the mind that brought us things we’ll never forget. The hallway fight in episode 2 of Daredevil for instance. I’ll be fondly remembering that on my deathbed.
Bad Times might be full Goddard, but it won’t be classic Goddard. It’s simply Goddard enough.
— JD Scroggin
Bad Times at the El Royale hits theaters October 12th!