Director: Drew Goddard
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 141 Minutes
The ideological trapping of reviewing something like Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale is to give into the misinformed impulse to compare it to the eclectic, early-gangster cinema of Tarantino for the convenient reference point. Granted, both are tightly wound comedies of error, with a neo-noir tinge, where eccentric and verbose criminals interact in a growing web of unfortunate circumstance, bound for bloodshed in a non-linear structure. But that’s an abstract connecting tissue at best.
Tarantino as a scriptwriter, for example, knows the effects and payoffs of a twist and can freely order his narratives around those tension points to engage his audience. In Goddard’s hands, the seven secretive strangers who spend the night at the bi-state El Royale hotel on the border of California and Nevada engage in a contrived series of “gotcha” moments meant to subvert his audience’s expectations and essentially work to obscure the big picture of his narrative from them. In that way, Bad Times becomes an overly long and convoluted crime ensemble that frustrates instead of shocks yet is saved by the strength of its cast. If we are comparing to Tarantino films, I’d think Four Rooms is the most appropriate.
Set in the tumultuous year of 1969, a group of loners all arrive at the virtually abandoned El Royale during its off-season, all for their own clandestine and slightly sinister purposes. An aspiring singer (Cynthia Erivo), a dementia-addled Priest (Jeff Bridges), a hippy runaway (Dakota Johnson) and a dapper salesman (Jon Hamm) converge at the check-in of the kitschy ’60s establishment and, from the onset, we’re clued in to how pivotal the cast will be.
All distinct, nuanced and carrying their own idiosyncrasies, the performances on display are the saving grace to Bad Times‘ extensive, tedious unravelling of secrets of which the two-and-a-half-hour run time takes its sweet time to get across. Particularly, the heartfelt, sobering performances of Bridges and Erivo, who bond once the cults, conspiracy and grand larceny get introduced, hold the unwieldiness together with their anchoring performances.
No one in the cast is robbed of his or her moment to shine, except for maybe the enigmatic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), whose shirtless third-act inclusion amounts to nothing more than a Charles-Manson-meets-David-Wooderson posturing that we’ve definitely seen before.
As Goddard has opted for a screenplay, buttressed by twist upon twist, that gradually illuminates the real goings on of the El Royale and its guests, spoiler culture prevents detailing any of these moments within this review. In light of that, I will mention that the majority of these “twists” are tedious, repetitive and are transparently classifiable as cheap “gotcha” moments meant to pull the rug out from one’s feet. Without knowing the full context of the deep criminal web at work here, most of these sudden (often violent) change-ups are robbed of any dramatic weight.
Hard to care about the sudden murder of a character when the multi-perspective, non-linear narrative refused telling me anything about either the one holding the gun or the one getting shot. We are treated to these twists, flashbacks, and runarounds, stacked on top of one another, in a problematically paced slough. By the time the final shootout comes around and Goddard’s script introduces the backstory of the hotel clerk, all patience had evaporated.
Script and plot construction aside, Goddard’s film proves itself a slick, stylish crime drama that is mainly confused in the structural department. Accompanied by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who recently worked a restrained, pulpy intrigue into fellow neo-noir Nocturnal Animals, the film makes the most out of its peculiar location by offering some notable flashes of inspired camerawork.
Even when confined to the dingy space of the under-furnished hotel room, scenes can play out with vigor and surprise, especially one masterful scene involving Bridges lifting up floorboards. The fault of these moments is Goddard’s tendency to drag these scenes out for unnecessary lengths, but Bad Times, at the very least, can butter you up with eye-candy before it proceeds to overstay its welcome.
Top it off with some Tarantino-esque musical cues and the messy convergence of all these plot lines and you have yourself a serviceable neo-noir that could have used another pass through the editing room. Goddard’s follow-up to Cabin in the Woods shows that, while he may know enough about horror to playfully deconstruct it, he desperately could have used a couple of refreshers on gangster and crime films before trying his hand. At least an all-star ensemble was there to hold down his messy execution.