Bad Times at the El Royale Is an Inventive and Indulgent Thriller

The new film from the director of The Cabin in the Woods boasts an impressive ensemble and is fascinating to watch, despite its many excesses.

Chris Hemsworth in 'Bad Times at the El Royale'
Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale (20th Century Fox)

Bad Times at the El Royale is set in 1969. That’s the year that flashes up on the screen early on, but this detail would’ve been easy to glean regardless. Drew Goddard’s new film has a lot in common with his 2012 directorial debut, the sly satire The Cabin in the Woods. It’s centered on an ensemble coming together in a strange, vaguely magical location, where nobody is quite who they seem and story conventions get bent and refracted in surprising ways. But where The Cabin in the Woods existed to subvert horror tropes, Bad Times at the El Royale is a farewell ballad not to a genre, but to an entire decade.

The El Royale is the hotel setting of this overly long, noir-tinged thriller. A once-ritzy establishment straddling the border between California and Nevada, it offers gambling on one side and creature comforts on the other. But its glory days are past—pictures on the wall of famous visitors like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra are gathering dust, the only food is whatever’s left in the Automat, and the solitary bellhop, Miles (Lewis Pullman), has to double as the concierge.

In other words, the building—which plays host to a curious cast of characters, who mostly arrive in the first act—is an echo of American exceptionalism that now feels like a hollowed-out fantasy. It’s a perfect backdrop for the story Goddard is trying to tell, where the El Royale’s nostalgic sheen covers up some grisly secrets. But the metaphor can only delight for so long, and Bad Times at the El Royale does outstay its welcome with a 140-minute running time. The Cabin in the Woods was a tight 95 minutes and played like an epic episode of The Twilight Zone. El Royale likewise has a clever plot construction but drags each scene out to the point of parody.

Every “room” (meaning every guest and staff member) at the El Royale gets its own dedicated segment of the movie, complete with a Tarantino-esque title card. Just like Quentin Tarantino, Goddard revels in messing with timelines, with each new story shedding light on the ones that came before. The film El Royale most evokes is Tarantino’s extremely flawed recent effort The Hateful Eight, a post–Civil War Western that threw eight strangers into a remote cabin and had them bounce off one another. El Royale doesn’t have the nasty streak that movie had, but it’s similarly wrestling with the death of the American dream, just in a more melancholy manner.

Who are the occupants at the El Royale? There’s Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a marble-mouthed priest with a spotty memory who seems intent on renting a particular room. Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is an aspiring singer looking for a practice space before a crucial gig. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is a vacuum-cleaner salesman with a Louisiana accent that could be described as Foghorn Leghorn–adjacent. Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) is a cowboy-boot-wearing stranger with a bad attitude and a mysterious sister (Cailee Spaeny) in tow.

Each one has a grim story to share, and that’s before the arrival of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic, frequently shirtless cult leader who rolls into the action late in the game. Nobody at the El Royale is telling the entire truth, but it’s quickly obvious that Darlene is the hero of Goddard’s movie. She’s given two arresting set pieces, one early in the film, centered on Erivo passionately belting out a song while all kinds of exciting action play out around her. The Tony-winning Erivo is a great actress, an even better singer, and the biggest reason to see this film.

But there are plenty of other intriguing elements at play. In elaborating on his ensemble’s backstories, Goddard furiously mixes in the sins of the Vietnam War, the tawdry legacies of the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, the looming specter of widespread drug addiction, and the dark side of the free-love movement. Some of it feels seamless, and some of it seems shoehorned in; one of the best characters exits too quickly, while the least interesting one dominates in the last hour.

Still, I have to applaud Goddard’s ambition, even when it overreaches. Yes, Bad Times at the El Royale is bloated and might’ve functioned better as a punchy bit of neo-noir. But it’s rare for a genre film to feel so sweeping and inventive; in fact, The Cabin in the Woods is one of the most recent examples to come to mind. This is a story where the many plot machinations are in service of grander thematic points. There might be too much going on, but as the final act descends into carnage, Goddard is at least trying to say something.