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An Underseen Retro Thriller is 2018’s Greatest Hidden Gem

This 2018 thrill ride is anything but a bad time.

Jon Hamm as Laramie Seymour Sullivan/Dwight Broadbeck in 'Bad Times at the El Royale'
20th Century Fox
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There are few things writers and directors love doing more than throwing a bunch of distrustful people in a room together and planting various seeds of doubt between them. Some of the most memorable thrillers of all time have followed that formula, including Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and John Carpenter’s The Thing. In some cases, those movies work in spite of their forgettable locations. In others, it’s the marriage between their central setting and their characters’ shared dilemma that makes them so interesting.

That’s certainly the case for Bad Times at the El Royale. The 2018 film from Cabin in the Woods writer-director Drew Goddard is a 1960s-infused, single-location thriller that traps an assortment of intriguing, diametrically opposed people in a fictional hotel that is just as much of a character as any of them. When it was originally released, the film received mostly positive reviews, but it made little of a mark at the box office.

Its financial performance is a reminder of how cruel the entertainment industry can be. Thankfully, Bad Times at the El Royale is now available to stream for free on Amazon Prime with Freevee, which means anyone who missed it during its original theatrical run can finally correct that mistake.

Set in 1969, Bad Times at the El Royale follows an ensemble of quirky, equally mysterious characters as they all check in for one night at the film’s eponymous hotel, which sits on the border that separates California from Nevada. Among the hotel’s noteworthy occupants are: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a seemingly forthright Catholic priest; Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), an aspiring singer; Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a solitary but capable hippie; Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny), Emily’s wayward younger sister; Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a talkative traveling salesman; and Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the El Royale’s sole worker and manager.

It isn’t long after they’re introduced that Bad Times at the El Royale begins to reveal the secrets of its hotel guests, some of which hold deadlier potential than others. When one character’s inquisitive nature leads to a shockingly violent moment, the film’s nesting doll structure starts to unravel. Before long, not only have certain characters’ facades been torn down, but several shocking details about Bad Times at the El Royale’s flashy-yet-decrepit hotel have also been revealed.

To say much more about the film’s plot would be to spoil many of its best surprises. However, anyone familiar with Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods will likely be delighted to discover that it boasts the same giddily violent streak as that cult favorite horror flick. Through one prolonged gag involving a set of two-way mirrors, Goddard even manages to subtly but effectively create a link between the two films. Whereas Cabin in the Woods acknowledges and incorporates certain tropes and horror movie clichés into its plot, though, Bad Times at the El Royale draws from real-life history for its story.

Over the course of its runtime, the film touches on everything from the cult-driven crimes of the late 1960s and the widespread surveillance tactics of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover to the rumored, illicit affairs of certain high-profile midcentury American politicians. In doing so, Bad Times at the El Royale crafts a surprisingly rich cultural portrait of its alternate reality and connects its themes about morality, greed, and trauma back to real-life events. There is, in other words, more to Bad Times at the El Royale’s pleasingly pulpy plot than meets the eye.

Chris Hemsworth is suitably creepy as a Charles Manson-inspired cult leader in Bad Times at the El Royale.

20th Century Fox

On top of all of that, the film is also an extremely fun, genuinely unpredictable piece of genre entertainment. Behind the camera, Goddard never lets his niche interests or larger ideas get in the way of his movie’s pure, unadulterated entertainment value. Anytime it feels like its pacing might be coming dangerously close to a standstill, the film jolts both you and itself back to life with moments of dark humor or bloody mayhem. The performances given by its cast, meanwhile, make each of Bad Times at the El Royale’s characters feel real even beneath their respective lies and levels of artifice, a fact which makes the film’s bursts of action hit that much harder.

Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo get the chance to turn in a pair of truly standout performances, but even Dakota Johnson and Chris Hemsworth get to do a lot with their limited amounts of screentime. There’s not a single wasted element in Bad Times at the El Royale, which is why it packs as much of a punch as it does. It’s a retro yet modern thriller, one that feels both indebted to history and able to exist on its own terms — and it should have gotten way more attention in 2018 than it did.

Bad Times at the El Royale is streaming now on Amazon with Freevee.

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