What’s better than a good old-fashioned mystery, right? The thrill of a story that has you constantly on the edge of your seat as you second guess everything, until the reveal of a deeper aspect of a character you thought was good all along changes your whole view. That sense of a smooth ride until you’re hit with a surprise that rocks you to the core and makes you unsure if your favourite character will even make it out alive. All this and more makes that mysterious feeling of suspense feel incredibly satisfying and is everything writer/director Drew Goddard clearly thought about when crafting his new film, Bad Times at the El Royale.
On one fateful night towards the end of the Vietnam War, a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (John Hamm), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) all find themselves staying in a hotel. Now, this sounds like the set up for a bad joke, but what happens is far from funny. Lines are drawn and secrets revealed as death seems to be looming around every corner. With a truly sinister man (Chris Hemsworth) coming to exact a strange revenge, all these one-night residents can do is pray that they survive long enough to see the sun rise.
Right from the opening scene, you can tell Goddard is in his element and utilises this restrictive setting excellently. There’s plenty of voyeuristic shots and long takes that let key moments and dialogue linger so that the audience gets to know each character better. Goddard also creates incredible suspense by making the audience feel comfortable through the film’s calm soundtrack and dialogue, only to surprise them and change the tone seconds later.
Bad Times at the El Royale feels like a love letter to the works of legendary filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, as his films have clearly inspired the film’s style. The best way to describe Bad Times is the editing and storytelling strength of films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, coupled with the stage-play setting of The Hateful Eight. However, instead of just copying Tarantino outright, Goddard brings great comedic timing, a fun and easy-going premise that is always taken just a step further, and an ensemble that really bring the characters to life.
The latter, though, couldn’t be done without a great cast and everyone pulls their weight. These characters will easily get audiences hooked, as one in particular has a growing sense of mystery that’s impossible to not hold out to the end of the film for. This is all thanks to the cast’s ability to delve deep into panic and madness as each layer is peeled back to reveal their true intentions. Jeff Bridges really makes his character’s complex situation impactful and I can honestly say that I’ve never really seen a character like his. Cythia Erivo also puts in a strong performance and while her character can feel a little out of place, she still adds some fun with some good banter and even better singing.
At the end of it all, the most shocking thing to say about Bad Times is that it’s genuinely full of surprises. Mysteries can often come off predictable as viewers are often trying to pull pieces together themselves, but this film is a little hard to do that. Even when sure about a character’s particular fate or beliefs, I was hit with twists that forced me back to the drawing board. It’s a truly satisfying feeling as a viewer to have your expectations subverted and that’s definitely where Bad Times is at its best.