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Bad Times at the El Royale

A new film written/directed/produced by the guy who made Cabin in the Woods? Holy shit, sign me up!

With Bad Times at the El Royale, Drew Goddard has crafted yet another film built on so many interlayered mysteries that discussing it without spoilers is exceptionally difficult. Suffice to say that the eponymous hotel — built directly on top of the California/Nevada line, just outside of Reno — used to be a hotspot where high rollers could have their fun outside of city limits. Until the establishment’s gambling license got taken away. Cut to some point in the late ’60s, when the hotel is a ramshackle shell of its former glory, barely held together through the efforts of a single burned-out clerk (Miles, played by Lewis Pullman, son of Bill).

After a prologue, in which we see a bag getting hidden somewhere in the hotel by a man (played by Nick Offerman) who gets shot for his trouble, the plot begins with the arrival of four new guests. I won’t bother listing the characters’ names, as it becomes immediately obvious that they all have something to hide and only one of them gives their actual name. I won’t tell which one.

Jeff Bridges plays fatherly warmth with a hint of something darker, as only he could do so brilliantly. Cynthia Erivo turns in a starmaking debut turn as a struggling singer. Jon Hamm gets to have a bit of fun as a sleazy womanizing salesman (quite a stretch for him, I know). Last but not least, Dakota Johnson plays an especially dangerous and unhinged kind of sexy, and it’s really a good look for her.

Then we’ve got Cailee Spaeny in a supporting role, and she’s… um… creepy. I can’t confirm how old Spaeny really is, but she’s playing her part as if the role was written for someone about five years younger. It’s like this particular character actively refused to grow up, and the presentation is legitimately unsettling. I’m impressed how much she committed to the role.

The weak link, alas, is Chris Hemsworth, with a brief yet vital role as a cult leader. I can understand how that might look like a good idea on paper, as Hemsworth has the kind of inherent likeability you’d expect in a cult leader. Unfortunately, while Hemsworth has undeniable charisma, he has none of the necessary gravitas. Never for a second did I believe that Chris freaking Hemsworth held all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. Moreover, the character needed a kind of marrow-deep malice that makes him fun to hate, but Hemsworth just can’t sell it.

That said, the performances are still solid across the board and the characters are genuinely compelling. The mystery is engaging, with more than enough surprises and revelations to keep the intrigue going. The set design is excellent, the sound design is creative, even the costume design is brilliant. I was particularly fond of how the filmmakers used fire in framing certain shots, helping to evoke the themes of forgiveness and spirituality in the subtext.

(Side note: With a few more viewings and enough booze, I could probably put together some thinkpiece about how the film is some kind of biblical allegory with Hemsworth’s character as Lucifer. That might be fun.)

With all of that said, the film is far from perfect. And I can tell you why.

See, this is a picture all about morally shady, inherently dishonest, and potentially violent people all stuck in close quarters together. Everybody has their own agenda, usually trying to lie, cheat, kill, or steal from each other. So we get a lot of scenes in which the characters are talking to each other as we wait to see whether any of them get killed or how. Oh, and the movie has a distinctly retro flavor (late ’60s/early ’70s) with a wide selection of classic songs from the era that are beautifully used. Speaking of which, the movie plays out non-chronologically, with title cards taking us to each flashback as we learn what the characters were doing…

It’s a Quentin Tarantino film. In case you couldn’t tell from that description, this is Drew Goddard trying to make a Quentin Tarantino film.

First of all, Tarantino’s skill with dialogue is legendary, and Goddard can’t possibly reach those heights. (Certainly not without Joss Whedon helping out as co-writer.) Secondly, Tarantino is known for leaningĀ hard into R-rated territory, with gleeful use of violence and offensive language. Yes, Goddard most certainly made an R-rated film, but it still looks PG-13 next to your typical Tarantino picture.

But what really makes the biggest difference is in pacing. The film clocks in at 141 minutes, which would actually be pretty standard for a Tarantino joint. The difference is that Tarantino knows how to make the minutes fly by in a way that Goddard doesn’t. I don’t know if it’s in the editing, the directing, the scripting, or what, but Goddard’s attempts at building up tension feel long and drawn-out in a way that I don’t typically associate with Tarantino. There are some good payoffs in here, don’t get me wrong, and the efforts at building up suspense are naturally crucial.

Basically, Tarantino is such a singular voice in filmmaking that any sincere attempt at imitation will only invite unflattering comparisons. And to be clear, that would be fine if the intention was in making a parody or a tribute. But this premise and these filmmakers had the potential to be so much more. Additionally, through his previous successes, Goddard has proven himself to be a marvelously talented filmmaker in his own right, with his own unique tastes and influences. I would so much rather see him put all this effort into making his own film, rather than trying to ape the style of someone else.

The bottom line is thatĀ Bad Times at the El Royale is a fun, exciting, engaging little suspense thriller, powered by a phenomenal cast, gorgeous visuals, and a stellar soundtrack. Alas, the movie suffers from maybe one or two subplots too many, leading to an overlong running time and moments of dramatic tension that are neither as dramatic nor as tense as they probably should have been. I don’t know if Drew Goddard actively set out to make a Tarantino movie, or if he used Tarantino as a model for how to make this particular movie work, but the sophomore director does himself no favors by inviting the comparison.

This one gets a recommendation, most especially for home video. I get the feeling that this one will only get better with time. At least, that’s what I hope.

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