Bad Times at the El Royale appears to be the byproduct of a weekend long Quentin Tarantino binge, fuelled by greasy cheeseburgers and strong whisky chasers. You can just picture Drew Goddard scribbling down his notes as he wipes the beef fat away from the corners of his mouth. The genesis point of this idea must have been born somewhere between Four Rooms (yes I’m counting it here) and The Hateful Eight. Take a group of sordid strangers, lock them in an isolated motel on the outskirts of town, blast some retro vinyls and watch the murder ensue.
To give Goddard his much deserved credit, labelling him and this film as merely a slice of well-cut lite Tarantino is a bit disingenuous. While there are a number of similarities in tone, writing, setting, title cards and aesthetic, Goddard seems more interested in the voyeuristic process of watching a Tarantino story rather than simply duplicating one. He wants to explore the reasons audiences get their kicks from this particular brand of stylised pulp.
Much like his masterful dissection of the horror genre (Cabin in the Woods – 2012), Bad Times is often keen to leap outside the frame and watch us, as we watch it, and wait for the bad to hit. Goddard takes the crime/noir genre, toys with his audience, usurps our expectations and then sits back to take note of our reactions. Nothing encapsulates this more than the opening scene (I will say no more).
Along for the ride is an all-star cast containing Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth’s abs and Nick Offerman, and while they all bring their well-established A-game to a B-movie, it’s the newcomers who often steal the show. Cynthia Erivo (a star on the rise), Lewis Pullman (Bill’s son) and Cailee Spaeny are all sensational in providing some varying shades to the films wonderful assortment of shady characters.
Impatient movie-goers may struggle with the 140-minute runtime and while there is no doubt that a tighter edit would have helped ramp up the tension, there’s something about lingering with these characters in this not-what-it-appears-to-be setting that feels somewhat cosy. Goddard is forcing us to find ways to empathise and maybe even forgive these people.
Unlike other noir/crime stories, there are no great or convoluted plot twists and the violence is very much held in check when you consider where other directors (Quentin) may have gone. This is a straight-forward thriller that uses excellent character development, dark humour, a jukebox and a curious bistate setting to play out its morality tale of forgiveness and redemption.
And if I’m still yet to convince you of the film’s worth, you could just come along to see a shredded Thor gyrating to Deep Purple’s “Hush”. Enjoy.