In just a few high-profile creative projects, Drew Goddard has built up such an impossible stockpile of anticipatory goodwill that it was inevitable his second feature as a director would suffer some kind of sophomore slump. After his work on Lost, The Good Place, and (his debut feature) The Cabin in the Woods in particular, Goddard has become synonymous with high-concept philosophical interpretations of Purgatory. Goddard sets his most distinct projects in artificial environments where the morally judgmental voyeurism of the audience becomes part of the text. He uses this metatextual remove to explore the psychological & philosophical implications of audiences’ desire to judge fictional characters as either Good or Bad, Moral or Evil. His second feature, Bad Times at the El Royale, has all the makings of a perfect Drew Goddard project in that way. It’s set in a complexly mapped-out artificial environment that encourages voyeurism & moral judgements. It’s populated by troubled, mysterious characters who unsubtly teeter between Good and Bad on a moral scale. It’s also intricately constructed on a narrative level, coming together onscreen like a temporal puzzle or a Rube Goldberg contraption. Yet, there’s something lacking about Bad Times at the El Royale that keeps its overall effect disappointingly pedestrian, recalling Goddard’s creatively muted credits on Netflix’s Daredevil series or Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It’s a handsomely staged, frequently entertaining picture – yet it’s inevitable to feel letdown by it because we know Goddard can deliver so much more than that.
Even if Bad Times at the El Royale is a little underwhelming, its titular locale is a wonder of sinister-kitsch production design. A Lake Tahoe novelty destination that lost its luster as 60s swank descended into hippie rot, the hotel represents American culture in decline at one of its most turbulent times. Nixon, Vietnam, Hoover, Manson, Civil Rights protests, hippies, and heroin swirl around in the cultural zeitgeist outside the hotel like an especially morbid verse in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A perfectly preserved novelty from before those political flashpoints sparked a Cultural Revolution, the El Royale pretends on the surface to be a World’s Fair attraction vision of an idealized American past – complete with automatic food dispensers and a sense of lawless Wild West hedonism. Undercover G-men, bugged rooms, and a secret hallway that exposes each hotel guest to being spied on via two-way mirrors compromise that outdated idealism to reveal that the swanky 60s America of the past was no less sinister than the hippie 70s of the near future (the film is set in ’68). This is of no surprise to four guests who all converge at the El Royale at the exact same time to kickstart the film’s multilayered conflicts: a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a hippie (Dakota Johnson), a priest (Jeff Bridges), and a vacuum salesman (John Hamm, back in Don Draper drag). Each conceal mysteriously guarded identities & motives until all is inevitably revealed in an ultraviolent climax (excluding what was prematurely revealed in the film’s trailer). It all comes together with the routine precision of clockwork, mirroring both the cultural ticking clock of the setting and the patience-tested audience’s urge to check our wristwatches.
It’s difficult to parse out exactly why Bad Times at the El Royale lands as good-not-great, despite the wonders of its production design, costuming, performances, and intricate plotting. It could be that, at 140 minutes, the film is too narratively unwieldy to support the weight of its runtime. The nonlinear structure of the story, broken up into chapters by hotel room, certainly doesn’t help there; it’s difficult to become too invested in any particular story before film switches tracks & resets. That structure’s similarities to the post-Tarantino 90s aesthetic, echoed by its 60s soul needle drops & humorously overwritten dialogue, feels a little too familiar to land with any genuine awe (especially since it isn’t observed with any of Goddard’s signature meta critique). My best guess for Bad Times at the El Royale’s shortcomings, however, is that the film doesn’t fully commit to the supernatural Purgatory elements of its script that feels so uniquely menacing in Goddard’s superior works. The film feels like such a blatantly coded, exaggerated depiction of the 1960s’s cultural catharsis, covering everything from religion to drugs to race to sex to war, that it’s almost a shame the artificial conflict of that philosophical stew wasn’t made literal in the text. The way all four of the El Royale’s guests arrive at the same time feels like a fresh batch of applicants being processed as a group at the Pearly Gates. Snippets of dialogue & signage like “See You Again Soon,” “How did you end up at the El Royale?,” “This is no place for a priest,” and (from the advertising) “All roads lead here,” suggest a supernatural tour of the Afterlife, or at least something more philosophically sinister than the sprawling dramatic thriller that’s delivered instead.
We’ve seen Goddard strike gold with those philosophical breaks from reality before, so it’s tempting to want more of the same here. Either way, he’s demonstrated he can do something far more interesting than this handsomely staged, but logically well-behaved popcorn movie. I hope whatever he works on next is just a structurally complex, but infinitely more preposterous. I don’t need him to ground his meta-philosophical contraptions within the bounds of reality. Reality is limiting, if not outright boring.