Drew Goddard is fast-becoming a household name. Having been on the scene for the last 10 or so years, he now has two directorial efforts under his belt, 2012’s cult hit horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods and now this, a neo-noir mystery thriller with an excellent cast to support it. As with Cabin, El Royale manages to put an enjoyable spin on a classic genre with an impressively surprising and twisty tale of violence and intrigue.
The El Royale Hotel exists on the state line between California and Nevada. A former hot spot for celebrities, it has seen better days and it finds itself as a late night refuge for a band of lovable misfits from across the land. As the hotel guests arrive, the hotel’s secrets reveal itself alongside the hidden pasts of its new inhabitants.
A film such as this – a dialogue-heavy mystery that relies as much on intrigue as it does on action – needs an onboard cast, and Goddard struck gold with those at his disposal. You have a powerhouse like Jeff Bridges, alongside a relative newcomer like Cynthia Erivo, backed up by a terrific actor who is due a leap into the Hollywood big leagues by now in Jon Hamm. That’s not even mentioning Chris Hemsworth in an against-type villain role and Dakota Johnson, one of Hollywood’s hottest rising stars. Everyone engages fully with their character, and it compliments the film beautifully.
In fact, its characters are the film’s strongest suit in my book. Every conversation is fascinating because it’s delivered with panache and passion, Jeff Bridges’ mysterious priest Daniel Flynn is an easy example of this. He takes a shine to Erivo’s equally mysterious (there’s a lot of mystery going on here, as is becoming clear) Darlene Sweet, a struggling singer from Indiana. The two have a conversation over pie about where they’ve come from and where they go is extremely engaging; Bridges, in particular, is terrific in this scene, managing to make me laugh and then pull at my heartstrings only a few lines of dialogue later. El Royale does an excellent job balancing these conversations with action, and this scene is the first example of this; you won’t see the climax of this scene coming and it made me react in a more visceral way than I would have done to a horror jump scare.
I could go on and on about the performances in this film. Jon Hamm impresses me every time I see him, and here it’s no exception. He starts off as Don Draper from Mad Men but with the irritating smarm cranked up to 100, but below the surface, he’s far more charming and genuinely funny than you first think. Dakota Johnson is effortlessly charming despite her villainous nature, pulling you in with her demeanour before stabbing you in the back. Chris Hemsworth, like I said earlier, goes against type as the film’s villain, and he absolutely convinced me that he would have young women fawning over him to do his every bidding. I quite liked Hemsworth here, I saw a different side of him that hasn’t been in his filmography thus far, hopefully, this signals the start of Hemsworth going for more alternative roles.
The film’s MVP is surely Cynthia Erivo though, given her relative lack of experience, but her ability to dominate a scene is unrivalled here. There are multiple scenes that showcase not only her acting skills but her singing ability too. Goddard puts her West End and Broadway background to terrific use. What could seem unnecessary is completely captivating because of how good a singer she is. I could listen to her sing for hours, and I’m honestly furious her versions of classic songs aren’t on the soundtrack.
There is so much good to say about the film that I haven’t even touched on yet. El Royale has extremely pretty visuals, gorgeous neon and bright colours surround the slightly garish hotel décor but it works thanks to its clever lighting, particular as fire comes into play at nightfall. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey is known for his visually compelling style given his experiences on 2014’s Godzilla and 2012’s Avengers Assemble, and it’s put to great use here, managing to make a film set completely within a hotel seem massive at times, sprawling through the dark corridors behind the scenes.
Goddard also excels on both a writing and directing level, for me. As already mentioned, his dialogue is completely engaging, but he has crafted a very delicate story that had to be told in a certain way. Using an easy framing structure of the characters’ rooms split up into chapters, he’s able to delve into the character and develop the story simultaneously. What I found particularly enjoyable was the way the stories overlapped; we’d finish with one character, take a step back in time to follow another character and witness how they affected each other, seeing scenes from different angles that reveal new information. It’s a really impressively design film on that level, and it fits exactly what I like to see in a noir mystery.
The film isn’t without its flaws, however, and that’s largely due to its runtime. I found the story enthralling for 80% of its 140 minutes, but in its final act, it really begins to drag itself out longer than it needs to. I got the impression that Goddard thought he had more loose ends to tie up than he needed to, even though he didn’t but still left a loose end unresolved. The atmosphere in the cinema changed in this final act; the excitable buzz from the people around me had vanished for people checking their watches next to me. It didn’t affect me too badly, but it’s a film that absolutely could’ve shaved 20 minutes off its runtime and it wouldn’t have hampered the film in any way.
Still, for its runtime to be my only real concern, I’d say El Royale is a sterling success. Drew Goddard continues to impress as a young director and I can’t wait to see what he does next. The cast is terrific across the board, hopefully making a star out of Cynthia Erivo and telling the world that Jeff Bridges has a lot of enthusiasm left in him yet. I had high hopes for the film going into it, and though it wasn’t quite the masterpiece I wanted, it’s still a terrific time at the cinema.
Directed by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth