Bad Times at the El Royale is an upcoming American thriller film written and directed by Drew Goddard. The film stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman and Chris Hemsworth, and follows seven strangers who each are hiding dark secrets that come to a head on one night in a shady motel. It will premiere at the Fantastic Fest on September 27, 2018, and is scheduled to be released in the United States on October 12, 2018.
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Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t based on existing property, nor is it part of a mega-franchise. Its director, though accomplished as a screenwriter, isn’t an acclaimed hotshot just yet. Though awards season dynamics are yet to take their final shape, the film’s success doesn’t hinge on Oscar buzz. Still, thanks to a stellar cast packed with stars, stylish trailers, and a crucial amount of mystery surrounding the project, El Royale may end up being one of the most buzzed-about movies of the fall, and not just because Chris Hemsworth’s abs have taken center stage in the marketing.
Which begs the question: What exactly is it about?
Well, the log line is essentially that it’s about seven strangers in the 1960s, all with some sort of a dark secret in their past, who wind up at the same chintzy motel whose main attraction is that it straddles the state line of Nevada and California. Two trailers, one just released today, also add the fact that there is secret surveillance (guests can be watched in the room, presumably through two-way mirrors, from secret passageways). Of course, what those dark secrets are, and what exactly happens on that fateful night when they all end up at the El Royale, still isn’t entirely clear. It’s a mystery thriller, after all, and such matters are wrapped up in the plot.
Still, from the trailers, industry press, and a few interviews the cast and director have given, we can pull together a clearer picture of the movie than the “Well, Hemsworth is a cult leader who doesn’t understand how shirt buttons work and Dakota Johnson is Southern for some reason” you may be currently working with.
It’s based on a real, infamous resort with scandalous connections to Marilyn Monroe, J.F.K., and Frank Sinatra
Yes, there really was a scandal-prone hotel and casino that straddled the state line, appropriately called the Cal Neva. It first came to wider attention when Clara Bow, the original It girl (fun fact: She rocketed to fame in a film named It, and that’s where we get the term) racked up $13,000 in debt to the resort and casino in the ’30s. Judy Garland once performed there at 13 years old. Members of the Kennedy family often stayed there, and it’s rumored that John F. Kennedy often carried out affairs there, including with Marilyn Monroe. Monroe stayed there once in the days before her death, and attempted suicide by overdose but had her stomach pumped just in time (conspiracy theories linger to this day that she did actually die there). In 1960, Frank Sinatra and a group of associates bought the place. That’s all on top of the various mafia and prostitution scandals and rumors. The hotel closed in 2013, but billionaire Larry Ellison bought it earlier this year and is currently renovating it.
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‘Bad Times At The El Royale’ Is A Twisty, Neon-Lit Neo-Noir ~ NPR
With the surprisingly inviting neo-noir Bad Times at the El Royale, writer/director Drew Goddard panders to jaded moviegoers’ secular disillusionment for the sake of making a larger (though ultimately vague and tidy) point about Americans’ struggle for meaning in a post-’60s world. And it always is a struggle: Bad Times at the El Royale follows several strangers as they, in a sequence of Pulp Fiction-y vignettes and flashbacks, recall how and why they’ve fled to the El Royale, a posh but now-abandoned casino-cum-motel that straddles the Nevada/California border.
In this way, Goddard (the co-writer and director of 2012’s Cabin in the Woods) uses melodramatic plot twists and grisly violence precisely, to make a broad point about the struggle between square-jawed (but sympathetic) optimism and cynical (but relatable) pessimism. His interest in Americans’ struggle to find faith during dark times (the film takes place some time in the late ’60s) makes Bad Times at the El Royale seem downright quaint, but this Irwin-Allen-sized B-movie mostly works thanks to Goddard’s knack for nesting-doll-style narrative compartmentalization and his talent for bringing out the best in his uniformly strong ensemble cast, which includes Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, and breakout star Cynthia Erivo.
Goddard keeps his hyper-compartmentalized plot moving forward so swiftly that he never gives us time to feel overwhelmed by Bad Times at the El Royale‘s preponderance of twists and signifiers. He often lets his characters’ reveal their inner struggles through wide-angle camera compositions, smooth tracking shots, and long (by modern standards) takes. Goddard gives viewers’ time to adjust to their surroundings and encourages us to let our eyes wander, sometimes down a hidden corridor or into the gaping hole at the center of a busted two-way mirror. He also, unfortunately, explains a bit too much through dialogue, especially once Billy Lee, Hemsworth’s Charles Manson-like cult leader, enters the picture. Still, Bad Times at the El Royale feels unhurried and smooth where Cabin in the Woods felt frantic and unruly, suggesting that Goddard’s chutzpah is now almost equal to his confidence as a filmmaker.
Better still: Goddard’s apparent love for his actors — their faces, the way their bodies’ move, how they talk — is infectious. He gives Erivo plenty of time and room to impress viewers with her stunning, soulful cover of Motown hits like The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine,” a performance which is understandably foregrounded in the film’s trailer. Goddard lets Hemsworth seduce viewers with a swing of his hips and several eyefuls of his washboard abs. He also gives Bridges, who who undercuts his usual Rooster Cogburn-style grimacing and growling with enough stammering and panting to make you feel like you’re watching his character fight a losing battle against his old age and failing memory, some of the best material he’s had to work with in years. Even Hamm, whose performance comes off, initially, as grating, soon proves himself perfectly cast and utilized.
Goddard’s so good at immediately drawing viewers in that even his scenario’s too-soft landing doesn’t significantly diminish Bad Times at the El Royale‘s many little pleasures. Granted, his Byzantine narrative really needs a show-stopper finale. The film may not feel like it’s 140-minutes long, but, well, it’s 140 minutes long. Goddard spends so much of that time building up his characters as characters that eventually, one can’t help but wonder why they matter. Why them? And why a shallow vision of the late 1960s as an era of Motown, televised Nixon speeches, and a fictional Manson Family-style cult?
The answers that Goddard offers aren’t really substantial, but they’re good enough to hold everything together. He never swings so far for the fences that his characters’ actions don’t make sense, given what we know about their personalities as they’ve been patiently sketched out over the course of the film. It’s not that smart, but Bad Times at the El Royale is attractive enough to be clever.