Drew Goddard’s feature directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, has aged very nicely for me. The film’s impish deconstruction of the horror genre was fun from the start, but the layers of cunning stirred in me a long-lasting appreciation for the ways in which Goddard embraced the inherent power in well-worn tropes while also giving them a knowing tweak. The delighted meta shenanigans give the whole enterprise a winning intelligence and low-sizzle current of insightful commentary.
The follow-up has been a long time coming, in part because Goddard got waylaid by Sony’s bumbling management of their Marvel properties, working for ages on a Sinister Six project that was eventually scrapped. An Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Martian kept Goddard somewhat in play (and he deserves extra credit for directing the wildest episode of The Good Place), but it’s taken too long for the latest film to bear his full authorial signature.
Bad Times at the El Royale is another genre exercise, albeit one less ruthless in its demolishing of established narrative devices. Set in the late nineteen-sixties, the film brings together several disparate characters in a border-straddling motel that’s seen better, far more glamorous days. As they check in, it’s clear that all carry heavy, tricky secrets, and Goddard’s ingenuity is in the way he systematically reveals all, holding back key details until the most opportune time to foist them on the audience, like bursts of confetti that just may carry toxins, or maybe wisps of psychotropics. All the ingredients of twisty thrillers are in place — kidnappings, gunplay, missing stashes of stolen money, sordid doings of all stripes — and Goddard absolutely revels in the grand excess he’s created.
And Goddard has assembled a band of game collaborators. The art direction, production design, and costume design are all dazzling, as is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. And the assembled actors tackle their complicated roles with verve. Jon Hamm continues his stretch of roles that reward (and benefit from) his robustly playful instincts, Lewis Pullman somehow keeps finding new pockets of internal turbulence as the sole employee of the motel, and Cynthia Erivo is nothing short of sensational as a girl group singer trying to eke out a living in a hard business that rejected her. The actors have the enticing but tricky task of using bold strokes while also keeping the characters grounded enough that there are real stakes to the mounting mayhem. Largely, they succeed admirably.
The film loses its way somewhat in its final act, in part because Goddard allows one particularly character to push too far into outright villainy, at odds with what’s been previously established. Following the intricate care of the earlier portions of the film, the descent into simply drawn conflict seems too pat, even as Goddard stages it energetically. Bad Times at the El Royale misplaces some of its inventiveness when it’s arguably needed the most, when a sharp ending could have served as the perfect bookend with the film’s crisp, shrewdly conceived opening sequence. It’s a touch of disappointment that isn’t likely to linger. As I’ve come to realize about Goddard’s work, it’s the strengths that endure.