Drew Goddard is the man behind The Martian's screenplay and the director and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods. He's also series creator of Netflix's best MCU show, Daredevil. All things I adore. And now, Bad Times at the El Royale. It's all his, and the things about those former movies that I suspected came from his mind has confirmation. I will officially watch anything that Goddard puts his pen on, because I love the way this guy writes.
|We're on the same wavelength or something. ... I wish.|
This movie is the sort of movie that shouldn't be explained. It's also the sort of movie where if you watch the trailer and think you'll like it... well, I honestly would be shocked if you didn't. And while the style and tone are great indicators of what the viewing experience will be like, you'll walk away loving the undisclosed details if you walk away loving anything at all.
It starts out on a great foot and with an explosive bang, showing off visual storytelling, glee-inducing yet simple camerawork and drop-dead gorgeous colors and lighting. The opening scene is very much a miniature reflection of the entire movie. After that, things get going in a cool and leisurely pace with brisk undertones that serves as a reminder of what is promised to come. But the film doesn't get ahead of itself and carefully introduces each character, showing them interact and introducing intrigue in each. That introductory scene, and many after, felt almost theatrical, like an immaculately staged and well-rehearsed play. When it closed I felt the need to give applause.
|Like in a play much of the interest comes from watching the actors interact with each other and the sets. There's a palpable energy between them.|
It utilized chapters with old-timey title cards to mix up the perspective, one for each of the seven characters, and a fun side effect is that some events are witnessed multiple times, from differing perspectives, each one adding to the information and delving further into the mystery and intrigue. Also it's just plain a heck of a lot of fun for the audience. Every time a new title card is introduced it feels like a turning point, immediately dropping an info bomb about the corresponding character that shakes up the plot in magnificent ways.
All this fits inside a classic three-act structure, and helps with the building of tension and rise and fall of action, which turns out downright masterfully, but honestly what else would you expect from a writer who directs his own work? Goddard though, is perhaps exceptionally good at the job. He could've made this story about anyone with equally fascinating results. The mystery isn't even a mind-bender; it's merely crafted in a way that makes you eager to understand it. A perfect balance of revealing and withholding.
|I like a movie with a slow burn. This one has firecrackers at intervals. And a hefty stick of dynamite for the end.|
I won't even bother to describe who the seven are. They are the movie's mystery. The El Royale is located on the California/Nevada state line, and guests must choose which side to stay on. There's a theme of false choices. For the hotel it's clear cut: California or Nevada. But with people it's more complex than that. "Good or bad? Right or wrong?" Well, what if a person's good but pretends to be bad? Or bad and pretends to be good? What if they think they're bad but they're good? Vice versa? Maybe they know if they're good or bad and own it. And maybe they don't know one side from the other or up from down. Is that seven options? Well, you get the idea.
Performance-wise, stand-outs will differ from viewer to viewer, but no one -- and I mean no one -- lacks in their performance at all. They're professionals, all, and each has significant moments to shine. Me, I particularly loved these three: Jeff Bridges, never not a standout, Cynthia Erivo, perfectly balanced with the voice of an angel, and Lewis Pullman, unexpected highlight of the whole film. I kid you not. And I exaggerate not. (Fun tidbit: he's Bill Pullman's son.) Dakota Johnson was way cooler than I thought she'd be, Cailee Spaeny was kind of brilliantly hilarious, Jon Hamm was a fun edgy/charm combo, and Chris Hemsworth was weird and very off-putting. Intentionally, of course.
|My cynical side hopes that people who go solely to see him shirtless will be disappointed. My optimistic side hopes they'll instead be hit with the real magic of this movie.|
I figured they'd utilize music, but I had no idea of how far it would be taken, and how ingrained would be. There's almost always something playing, or someone singing, and all in-story. It bleeds into the style. There's a beautifully long and immaculately timed one-shot where a character is singing and another is sleuthing that I never wanted to end. The violence was all well and good -- no secret: the violence was my favorite parts every time -- but the intentional, calm pace in between is what keeps the movie thriving. Whether it lulls you into false comfort, or makes you aware of the impending doom, it's in that patience and restraint where the story is crafted.
Then the violence and the thrills come, and the prepared background makes them pop and startle with what seems like no effort at all. It's all in the prep work. This isn't an action movie, but those spurts of action put most action flicks to shame with how well-done and explosive they are. And this is my kind of film because in between those brief but generous spurts is character attention and exploration that is for me equally as exciting and fights and blood splatter; and it simultaneously works to enhance that action by putting stakes behind it all.
|I didn't mention the dark humor. There's dark humor that I loved. Subtle. Unnecessary. And OH-so-fine.|
I'd love to have a deeper grasp on the themes explored here. I can't get into it here since I wanted to avoid spoilers, but the night I saw it I couldn't sleep for thinking about the themes and how they were portrayed. There was some wonderfully clever and impactful symbolism that struck me, and I've been pondering on it all ever since. It'll take a second viewing at least to strengthen and solidify my interpretation, and who knows how many more before all those lines and details even begin to get boring. If there's a threshold, I plan to find it.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a rich and silky-smooth thriller, pensive but not pedantic, intricate but never stale or tedious, sufficiently intense and mature, yet distinctly and determinedly fun -- and absolutely glowing in devious red neon. It may not be everyone's ideal vacation into the silver screen, but for those like me, who enjoy the... shall we say... less touristy locales... that perhaps feature the dangerous mark of a devoted artist... this incident may as well have been hidden away just for you to find.