Drew Goddard is no stranger to turning genre convention on its head. He’s worked on Buffy and Lost, he wrote Cloverfield, and delighted many a horror fan with his directing debut, The Cabin in the Woods. For only his second feature as writer / director, he takes on film noir, cold war paranoia and American social history in a film with the kind of twists that keep you screaming at the screen in surprise.
It’s 1969, ten years after a prologue robbery gone wrong. The El Royale, a Lake Tahoe hotel split right down the middle between Utah and California, has seen its glory days come and go and, where once were glamorous film stars, there are now just four strangers, four American archetypes, each looking for a room. But the night will reveal secrets about these people, secrets as big as the ones the hotel itself is hiding.
One of the many pleasures in checking into the El Royale is how perfectly the rugs beneath your feet get pulled, and how often. With one big reveal happening early on, the surprises to follow continue to work and, thanks to a clever structure where we often see events happening again but from a different character’s perspective, revelations bring real depth to the characters.
No film hotel has looked this good since The Overlook. The attention to every detail is a masterclass in production design and lighting - the California half of the hotel reflecting light and optimism, the Utah side something a little darker.
The cast is great, but both Cynthia Erivo (singing live on the set) and hotel concierge Lewis Pullman steal the show. Jon Ham and Dakota Johnson are superb also, with only Chris Hemsworth providing a slightly off-note performance due partly to a final act turn which is less satisfying than its build up. But when a film is this much fun, that’s a minor gripe.
The Blu-ray is a beauty to behold. Goddard’s decision to use film instead of digital to shoot pays off wonderfully with sumptuous rich colour and texture. There are a few extras - trailers and a stills gallery, plus a so-so ‘making of’ with cast and crew interviews, the most interesting part of which is an examination of the set, revealing how they built the El Royale as a single unit you could walk right through. And of course, Jeff Bridges comes across once again as the nicest man ever.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: DREW GODDARD / STARRING: JEFF BRIDGES, CYNTHIA ERIVO, DAKOTA JOHNSON, JON HAMM / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW