Hotel walls are always painfully thin. The mutters on the other side are often caught by accident, but once wormed into your brain they’re forever trapped. What brought your neighbor to their destination? Business? Holiday? Do they seek to escape, or something more permanent? Every check-in is an invitation to mystery; behind every door is an Agatha Christie novel in progress. The trick is to stay an observer, and not fall victim to another’s narrative.
The walls of the El Royale are thinner than most. Each room hides a two-way mirror for an unseen observer to record your dirty interludes, a window designed for profit and perversion. What was once a booming destination that ensnared politicians, celebrities, and star-fuckers, has crumbled into insignificant disrepair. Eight bucks a night can conceal a vacuum salesman or a runaway backup singer, but the days of financially significant blackmail are long gone.
JFK got his brains blown out. Our boys are burning in jungles across seas we’ve never seen. Nixon lies to us every night from the TV set in the living room. Drew Goddard constructs his latest thriller on the bones of a screaming America. No timestamp necessary, the sixties are coming to a close. Charles Manson is on our doorstep…or scarier yet, Billy Lee.
Here is a thriller designed to excite and titillate, but the Bad Times at the El Royale are not nearly as horrifying as the massacres occurring daily beyond its dilapidated real estate. Everyone is seeking refuge from a traumatic backstory, and the four guests that collide on this particular night are certainly justified in their retreat. They want little to do with each other and are even less interested in the grand history of their current destination.
Lewis Pullman is the junkie desk clerk who spends most days unbothered and locked away in the maintenance closet. The hotel rests literally on the borders of California and Nevada. Once upon a time, it was cute and enticing, but his spiel has grown tired and trite. The surprise appearance of four desperate customers knocks him out of his stupor and ignites the necessary dramatic chaos. These folks care not for the kitsch. They’ve got hell chasing them.
Goddard devilishly divides the film using room numbers on title cards. Jon Hamm is Room One, the vacuum salesman. He was there first, he has a lot of accouterments, and he demands the palatial space of the honeymoon suite. Room Five belongs to Cynthia Erivo’s wannabe maiden of Motown. She’s remained stuck in the shadows for too long, and the bright lights of Reno offer her stability if not stardom. Jeff Bridges is a priest who lets the flip of a coin snag him Room Four. Dakota Johnson is the steely hippy girl in Room Seven, and she’s packing more than luggage in the trunk of her car.
Behind rented doors, the enigmas lock themselves away from their troubles. We’re given time inside with each one, and it is quickly revealed that they are more than their archetype. With sins exposed to the pesky two-way mirrors, the guests are forced into partnership and opposition, and more than one outside force looms over their future.
Who is Billy Ray? He’s Chris Hemsworth, and that’s really all you need to know to understand the potency of his power. He’s introduced haloed in the light of the sun, and even if Goddard doesn’t signify the moment with a choir of angels, we feel their music ripple across our flesh. He is truly Odinson, and any mortal would fall for his magnetic attraction. This heavenly being has weaponized that allure, and it makes him as deadly as any bullet.
Bad Times at the El Royale rattles with the energy of a roulette wheel. From the instant the first room is made aware of the dealings inside another room, the spin is struck, and the ball hits the backtrack. Goddard delights in the audience’s guessing game of who will survive the bet, effectively aping the surprise assassinations of the very best Hitchcock scripts. All actors are made equal under criminal crosshairs.
Goddard mostly succeeds in disguising his hand within genre tropes, but to achieve unique combinations of performers, a few paths must be forced through preternatural sleuthing or coincidence. As if two-way mirrors were not enough, characters are gifted impossible spidey-sense to alert them of impending danger and lightning quick reflexes to achieve a preemptive strike upper hand. It’s a movie-movie, so whatever gets Bridges and Erivo sitting across from each other battling wits and chewing dialog is hunky dory. Why question when you’re having this much fun?
The references and material receiving subversion in Bad Times at the El Royale may not be as obvious to a modern audience as the creature features getting eviscerated in Goddard’s previous film, The Cabin in the Woods, but it certainly relies heavily on the graves of past efforts. Hitchcock and Christie are there in the set-up. The fetishized sixties production design reeks of Tarantino, and maybe a little Wes Anderson. The actors slip in and out of Bogart, Cagney, and Dunaway. This is B-movie pulp elevated by A-movie talent. So, for those that want to play, the film acts as a Silver Screen edition of Trivial Pursuit.
Bad Times at the El Royale rarely drops its Mowtown beat and keeps its hotel room revelations coming right up to the climax. Attempting to determine who will make it to their check-out time is futile. Over the course of the film, I placed my bet on each and every mark, and still managed to tap out. Goddard is precious with nothing except the setting. The film is his dollhouse, and the impression is that the toys that survived this round of runtime would probably not make it through the next one. Understand that the director is the kid in charge, look don’t touch, and you’ll enjoy this recess from your apocalypse outside.