+ Recommended – R, Mystery, Thriller (141 minutes)

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It may not come as a surprise to some, but Drew Goddard is simply one of my favorite writer-directors working today. I started heavily involving myself in his creative work after The Cabin in the Woods (2012), which is one of my favorite horror movies of the last decade. Initially, I heard Bad Times at the El Royale was a budgeted Tarantino movie-but upon first watch, I can confidently say Goddard’s abilities are strikingly sleek and visually appealing for any ol’ cinephile. One of 2018’s best. It has my neon stamp of approval.

Bad Times at the El Royale follows a simple formula that has been previously established in many other movies of the same genre: X amount of strangers are locked in a bar, house, etc., and must find a way to work together to survive the night. For those of you familiar with Tarantino’s work, it will feel vaguely similar, but not the same. Packed with an incredible cast, such as Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, and Chris Hemsworth, the movie lavishly explores the similarities and differences between the characters and practically begs you to root for them, even if their moral centre is significantly flawed.

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Still from Bad Times at the El Royale

Smaller moments may seem as if they would have nothing to do with the current storyline, yet Goddard uses these minor details to drive the plot onward as the strangers’ night intensifies. Watch the characters closely because their actions are, by far, the most worrisome portion of the movie, ensuring the audience will remain on the edge of their seat. Just when you think you know what will happen, a wrench will alter progression on certain characters or story beats. Several times in the theatre I legitimately jumped back, which rarely happens for me even in horror movies. Indeed, it has the most delightful surprises or plow twists that happen because of a concise narrative structure. Goddard uses the established motel setting to contain the action on screen so that an illusion of exclusion, isolation will surface.

Something unexpected that I discovered while watching Bad Times at the El Royale is the extremely effective use of music. Everything imaginable from story, sound design, to certain cuts use a bluesy, jazz sounding template to stretch the course of the film. It’s stylish, sweet, and leads to one of the most powerful movie moments I’ve seen of all 2018. There is a sense of invisible direction, as many shots are designed without cuts and dolly around the characters to reveal more of the spatial atmosphere of the set. Static camera shots often leave space for the viewer to preview the action just as if they were in the same place as the characters themselves; lending the characters extra pathos from the audience.

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Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale

I encourage any film fan, whether it be noir or thriller, to go out and see Bad Times before it leaves the theatres. And since this review is coming out early, thanks to my Alamo for the early screening, you have plenty of time to make plans for a trip to the theatre next weekend. Believe me: this is one you won’t want to miss.

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