Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
Written & Directed by Drew Goddard
The El Royale is a unique Lake Tahoe hotel in that is straddles the California/Nevada line. The place was one a prestigious getaway for many of the Rat Pack and other glittering stars of a bygone age. By the time the film begins, 1969, the glory days are gone, and the hotel has fallen into disrepair. On this fateful day, a priest, a lounge singer, a vacuum salesman, a mysterious woman have checked in. El Royale has only one troubled staff member who seems to discourage these people from staying but reluctantly gives in. By the end of this night, all of these guests will be changed forever, facing their fears and discovering the dark secrets behind the El Royale.
Drew Goddard is a filmmaker very well-known for a single movie: The Cabin in the Woods. What you might not know is how prolific a role he’s had as a writer and producers of film & television. He’s been deeply involved in NBC’s The Good Place and Netflix’s Daredevil. He got his start as a protege of J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon penning a mountain of scripts for Buffy, Angel, Alias, and Lost. This means there was a decent amount of hype around El Royale. It wasn’t overblown or uber-marketed, but among fans of the media mentioned above, there was some excitement about Goddard’s long-awaited feature film sophomore effort.
What we ended up with in the final product was something that attempts to ape the structure and style of Quentin Tarantino but fails to be as smart and well-crafted. There is an attempt to blend the non-linear outline of movies like Pulp Fiction and the character development flashbacks of Lost, a combination that sounds like it could be awesome. Instead, the delivery is clunky and dissonant; I felt disengaged from the story multiple times because of scenes that drug on for way too long and didn’t smoothly connect themselves to what happened before or after. Goddard seems to lean heavily on the tropes he developed at Lost: a remote location where disparate characters become stranded, while the dark secrets in their background affect their decisions as they try to survive.
I look at this written out and think, “I should love this movie!” yet I ultimately found myself bored and my mind wandering through big chunks. I believe Goddard got a little too clever with the script and didn’t go through and make sure that the choices in he made were smart and built a cohesive whole. One example of where better scene placement would add to the sense of mystery in the film involves Laramie (Jon Hamm), the vacuum salesman. It’s revealed pretty early on that Laramie is not whom he claims to be, shown in the third scene of the film. Moreover, Goddard dumps a ton of information that lets us know exactly who the character is. In the second act, Laramie’s story crosses over with another guest’s in a significant way. I couldn’t help but think how interesting it would have been to keep Laramie’s full backstory more mysterious, have this crossover moment, and then have the story go backward to fill in the gaps and reveal to the audience just exactly what the vacuum salesman was up to. The way it plays it out just left me mildly interested.
Chris Hemsworth is woefully miscast in this movie. He plays a pastiche of Charles Manson, a charismatic cult figure who has conditioned the young women around him to do as he commands, including kill. However, Hemsworth is not capable of exuding the level of menace and charisma needed to play the role effectively. His passes at trying to intimidate or be clever just come across as unintentionally comical. If they wanted an actor in the same “group” as Hemsworth, I think someone like Chris Pine would have done a better job. Pine would have been more convincing in the evil parts, for sure. I never felt the danger and horror I should have when Hemsworth’s character arrives on the scene, instead musing myself, “Oh, I guess this is the third act now.”
The pieces are there for a pretty damn good wide release movie. El Royale could have been some wonderful summer counterprogramming to the bigger, louder, and ultimately uglier studio releases. In the same way, The Cabin the Woods played with horror tropes; I would have loved to have seen the same playfulness in El Royale. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the next Drew Goddard picture does better.