In 2007, J.J. Abrams, in the midst of Lost's zeitgeist-y run, gave a TED Talk in which he popularized the phrase "mystery box" in reference to his work. "There's the thing of mystery in terms of imagination," he said, "the withholding of information. You know, doing that intentionally is much more engaging." The following year, Abrams produced perhaps his most mystery box-y of films, Cloverfield, written by Drew Goddard
Goddard, who wrote on Abrams' mythology-heavy series like Alias and Lost, seems to have taken to the the notion, markedly in his subversive directorial debut, 2012's Cabin in the Woods. He's at it again now with Bad Times at the El Royale (out Oct. 12). Having seen the film, I'm not sure it needed to be as shrouded in secrecy as it has been.
But that's what Goddard wants, so I'll play along: Bad Times revolves around seven strangers -- played by Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman and Cailee Spaeny -- who meet at the eponymous hotel one fateful night in the 1960s, each with their own reason for being there, each with their own secrets to hide, each with plenty to gain and more to lose. (In this era of teasers for teaser trailers for trailers for extended trailers, when audiences have practically seen the whole film before walking into the theater, it does add to the fun not knowing much more than that.)
It's an entertaining little chamber piece, a dark and pulpy tale that unfurls in fits and starts, rewinding and shifting from one guest's point of view to another as they cross paths, and then double cross each other. Goddard creates a puzzle -- of what's happening in the parking lot while something else is going on in the lobby bar and in one of the guest rooms -- that is beautifully stylized, full of witty banter and, yes, plenty of surprises that had the audience hooting and hollering.
As a mystery box, though, I didn't find myself so much disappointed as perhaps a bit underwhelmed in the end. As Abrams explained in his talk, "Stretching the paradigm a little bit, [there's] the idea of the mystery box, meaning, what you think you're getting, then what you're really getting." Each of the rooms at the El Royale contains its own mystery and the box of a hotel is a mystery in itself, but few of the reveals succeed in turning this fairly straightforward noir thriller on its head, while other mysteries are left frustratingly ambiguous, seemingly for ambiguity's sake. That might be unfair of me, to assume that Goddard's latest would be as twisty or as turn-y as The Cabin in the Woods -- aliens! Werewolves! Sigourney Weaver! -- but alas.
Where Bad Times at the El Royale excels is in its performances, with scene after scene of actors getting to act. (And Erivo to sing.) Bridges, as shifty priest Father Daniel Flynn, is amusingly gruff, while Hamm, as vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan, veers the opposite direction, one of those big, accent-y performances that devours the scenery. Erivo, as doo-wop songstress Darlene Sweet, is withdrawn and weary, until she starts crooning, while Johnson plays brassy and vampy and proves, once again, that she is hilarious.
Then there's Hemsworth, as the Manson-like cult leader Billy Lee, swaggering and strutting and serving as quite the generous scene partner to his six most reliable co-stars: his abs. (I would join Chris Hemsworth's cult.) He acts as the match that lights the dynamite here, but when you throw this many talented actors into the mix and let them rip, it's no mystery why it ignites.
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