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Have a Good Time at the Theater watching “Bad Times at the El Royale” Next Weekend

In his new film “Bad Times at the El Royale,” director and writer Drew Goddard delivers a new suspense-thriller to follow up to his previous hits, “Cabin in the Woods” and “The Martian.” In Bad Times, Goddard pulls out all of his old favorite techniques, and the meticulous framing of key plot points keeps the viewer’s attention throughout the movie’s fast-paced plot. And slow, tense builds throughout the movie lead to shocking, if not violent, surprises–a hallmark of Goddard’s hit-and-run style of suspense. It’s enigmatic characters leave the viewer trusting no one, not even the most innocent of patrons of the El Royale motel.  There were a few moments when the sheer suspense made me want to jam my head between my knees, afraid to look at the screen. But only a few minutes later, the perfectly-timed punch of action would make me want to launch out of my seat. Only a week later do I feel like I can articulate the havoc that this brilliant, daring, and tremendously wild movie put me through last Saturday night.

The story begins with six strangers, who all arrive for unknown purposes at the shady El Royale motel. The motel straddles the borders of Nevada and California somewhere outside of Lake Tahoe, and according to Goddard, was inspired by the infamous Cal Neva Lodge & Casino. Cal Neva was a motel owned by singer Frank Sinatra in the 1950s and 1960s, which was allegedly frequented by big-shots of its era, like Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy brothers (never at the same time, of course). The El Royale motel has a red line that runs down its center, to mark the division between its two states. The hotel Lobby Boy, with a hospitable demeanor by portrayed by actor Lewis Pullman, describes the motel as “warmth and sunshine to the west, hope and opportunity to the east.” The division between sides of the motel is introduced as a cute gag in the exposition of the movie, when  a priest, played by Jeff Bridges, asks Darlene Sweet (played by Cynthia Erivo), “how’s the weather in Nevada been lately?” However, the line is soon employed as a darker motif when the plot takes its twist towards suspense. As the night sets in, the motel welcomes the six visitors: Father Flynn the priest, Darlene Sweet the singer, along with a too-charming vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Sullivan, the moody Summerspring sisters, and an unanticipated late addition to the crew–the mysterious Billy Lee. It almost sounds like the set up to a bad joke–“what do a pastor, a singer, a salesman, two sisters, and a cult leader have in common?”–well, more than you’d think. As the movie’s teaser puts it, “seven strangers come together at the El Royale, each with their own secrets to bury, and take one last shot at redemption before everything comes together to go terribly (but all so perfectly) wrong.”

Before hitting theaters, Bad Times didn’t receive nearly as much praise in the press as it warranted. Drew Goddard had written, produced, or directed several phenomenal projects, however, “Bad Times at the El Royale,” wasn’t as extensively promoted as his earlier films. This lack of coverage is even more peculiar considering the movie’s star-heavy ensemble, including Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, John Hamm, and Dakota Johnson, each delivering powerful and uniquely-crafted performances in their roles. Chris Hemsworth went bad for this movie–flexing his dramatic (and actual) muscles as Billy Lee, a cult leader who hunts and abducts children. And actors, like Hamm and Johnson, did an excellent job bantering throughout the dialogue of the movie, aptly giving each character just enough to develop their individual personas through key plot-points in the movie’s suspense. But even then, the actors’ portrayals withheld enough to keep us guessing about these strangers’ real intentions at this seedy motel. Altogether, the accomplished writer and director behind the film, accompanied with the talented actors he had to work with, should have had everyone waiting in line to see just what the hell was going to happen.