There's something buried beneath the floorboards at the El Royale hotel. We learn pretty early on that whatever has been stashed at the remote locale is important enough that people will kill for it. And the movie really kicks in once four strangers arrive at the El Royale, seemingly to retrieve the buried treasure... but maybe that's not the sole purpose for any of their overnight stays.
That's a killer set up for Drew Goddard's spectacular and deliciously unpredictable Bad Times at the El Royale, but it's the shockingly twisted and unconventional places the storyteller goes from the jump that propels El Royale above the usual fray of Tarantino knockoffs to become, easily, one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of 2018.
Goddard previously twirled a recognizable genre around his finger with 2012's The Cabin in the Woods, an intelligent and in-on-the-joke spoof of classic horror tales that delivered a bombastically wild ending. What Cabin did for monster movies, El Royale does for neo-noir pulp crime stories, pulling and tearing away at the format to improve what usually works quite well in these seedy narratives, while also placing the director's own unique stamp on the screen.
I can tell you a little bit about the four strangers without giving much away. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a Midwestern priest with a gentle face and a kind demeanor. He's hard of hearing, and a little forgetful (so long as he's not faking those spells that are coupled with vacant stares). Flynn bonds instantly with Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a talented singer stopping at the El Royale on her way to a gig.
The other two guests are wild cards. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is a traveling salesman who thinks he can read strangers like a book. But even he would struggle to figure out Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), the lanky but sophisticated brunette who hides behind massive sunglasses, projects a strong will, and doesn't have time for anyone's nonsense.
The El Royale, itself, is a fascinating character, and Drew Goddard's choice of location keeps his movie dancing on its toes. The hotel physically divides in two, with half of the resort located in Nevada and the other, technically, being in California.
The movie, meanwhile, has approximately an 80/20 split, with the first 80% being a riveting rollercoaster ride through eye-popping reveals, razor-sharp dialogue delivered with tasty precision, and a bedrock of toe-tapping R&B tunes that sync to Goddard's action. We can use Bad Times at the El Royale to teach editing in film schools for decades. And I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that El Royale is the closest relative to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction that I have seen fall off of Hollywood's family tree in quite some time. Bad Times at the El Royale is the best Tarantino movie that Quentin never directed.
That last 20%, the final act, isn't so much of a letdown as it is a leveling off from the previous high. And yes, too much of this is attributed to Chris Hemsworth's character, and I'd really need a second viewing to deduce if the issue lies in the casting of Hemsworth, or the construction of the part he's asked to play. Still, by the time we reach that finale, we're already drunk on the rich characters, the unusual setting, the twisty surprises and the exquisite performances (particularly by Bridges and Erivo, who are both captivating). Drew Goddard winds Bad Times at the El Royale tight, like a jack in the box, and man, is it a delight every time he allows that clown to pop out and surprise us.