Bad Times at the El Royale hits this week. Get your tickets here!
Drew Goddard has a fascinating preoccupation with morality. A bird’s-eye view of the writer, director and producer’s career reveals a pattern of stories about goodness, guilt, redemption, and questions about whether we can transcend the roles we believe define us. Goddard started out writing for TV on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, shows saturated with themes of destiny and redemption. He took on showrunning duties for Daredevil, in which the main character’s Catholic faith (and Catholic guilt) are significant. The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard’s first outing as a film director, posed questions about character tropes, and in its climactic moral dilemma had its protagonists literally burn down the established story framework they were part of.
When you consider all of this, Goddard’s latest film, Bad Times at the El Royale, feel like a natural progression for him. The story of a group of strangers who converge on a once-swanky hotel sitting on the California-Nevada border, it combines the redemptive drama of Buffy and Angel, the religious guilt of Daredevil and the twisty voyeuristic elements of The Cabin in the Woods. But another notable influence on the film comes from Goddard’s other most recent work: producing and directing on the NBC comedy The Good Place.
Goddard has directed two episodes of the show, one of which was its pilot, where we’re introduced to the afterlife utopia of the Good Place, and Kristen Bell’s newly arrived Eleanor Shellstrop. Eleanor discovers she’s made the cut into eternal paradise, despite having been a self-described “trashbag” in life. She’s joined by Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor crippled by indecision, name-dropping philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Buddhist monk Jianyu—who later turns out to be Jason (Manny Jacinto), an aspiring EDM DJ from Florida. It turns out all of these characters are deeply flawed, and neither the Good Place, nor its architect, Michael (Ted Danson), are what they seem.
Similarly, in Bad Times at the El Royale, the characters arrive at the titular El Royale motel - a faded mid-century gem of a place - with different dark backstories. Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) may not really be a man of the cloth. Nevertheless, nervous bellhop Miles (Lewis Pullman) seems weirdly eager to have his confession heard. Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) is a singer whose career has been dogged by casual racism and sexism. Vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm) turns out to be anything but a door-to-door peddler. Foulmouthed hippie Emily (Dakota Johnson), on the run from Mansonesque cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), is the most dangerous guest of the bunch. She’s dragging along a hostage (Cailee Spaeny), who she may actually be rescuing.
Like the Good Place, the El Royale motel also harbors some secrets. Without spoiling too much, it shares a few aspects in common with the Cabin in the Woods house, but more importantly, it also occupies a kind of philosophical battleground, where characters are forced to address the traumas and actions of their past. Straddling the line between two states and filled with a haunting emptiness that recalls The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, the El Royale takes on aspects of purgatory.
Bad Times at the El Royale also makes use of the same non-linear storytelling that appears in The Good Place, inserting flashbacks that both fill in the characters’ backstory, and cause us to reconsider what we think we know about them. One involving Miles uses this to powerful effect, first as a hilariously abrupt cut, followed by the film’s most heartbreaking character reveal of all.
Most importantly, both The Good Place and Bad Times at the El Royale are explorations of the themes that have driven Goddard’s work his whole career: what makes people good, and the many ways that people can be bad. In both the show and the film, characters are either unable to advance in their development, or to physically leave their location until they’ve come clean about their past and let someone else see their true selves. In The Good Place, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason need to be honest with each other in order to prove they’re becoming better people. In Bad Times at the El Royale, full ownership of one’s actions becomes necessary in order to survive the night.
But confessing our shortcomings isn’t just about being honest with others. It’s also about being honest with ourselves, recognizing that we’ve done wrong, that we can change, and that we will change (or at least try to). The idea that redemption is always available to those who truly seek it exists in The Good Place and in Goddard’s film as well. Seasons two and three of The Good Place have been dedicated to the show’s protagonists rehabilitating themselves, and seeking recognition that they can transcend their afterlife pigeonholing. In Bad Times at the El Royale, one character’s last-minute confession of sin isn’t enough to save their lives, but suggests that even just sharing it, and expressing the pain it’s caused them, has helped them find peace.
Bad Times at the El Royale is ultimately a film about how we justify ourselves to others, a theme it shares with The Good Place and much of the rest of Drew Goddard’s work. It’s a morality play wrapped up in a clever thriller, a story in which nobody is innocent, but nobody’s beyond saving, either—that is, if they’re willing to recognize their wrongs.