The premise of Bad Times at the El Royale sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: a priest, a cop, a hippie and a singer walk into a hotel lobby. Each has something to hide, as does the hotel itself, which straddles the California and Nevada border and is staffed by a single bumbling desk clerk.
It’s written and directed by Drew Goddard, who previously helmed the satirical meta-slasher Cabin in the Woods. Goddard is clearly a film savant, and similarly to Cabin in the Woods, the aesthetic and sensibility of Bad Times is lovingly pieced together from dozens of other movies – most obviously Quentin Tarantino’s chamber piece The Hateful Eight, which also placed a group of disreputable strangers in close quarters and let the hostility between them develop organically. In fact, Bad Times is so intensely redolent of both a Tarantino genre movie and a garish 70s neo-noir that it’s easy to miss its own singular offerings.
Much of what’s enjoyable here is down to Goddard’s obsessive focus on plot; he refuses to let his film rest, obstinately laying on twist after twist throughout its two hour twenty run time. Almost as important as the winding, precarious story are the performances, led by a typically superb Jeff Bridges as Daniel Flynn, a priest with ever-encroaching memory loss and a host of secrets he frequently can’t recall.
Cynthia Erivo, a British theatre actor making her cinematic debut, also stands out as a down-on-her-luck nightclub singer, her knowing, keening sadness suffusing the entire film. At the other end of the scale is Chris Hemsworth, trying and failing to frighten as a Manson-esque cult-leader. Hemsworth clearly wants to channel the swaggering assurance of past movie psychopaths (think Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter), but his performance is closer to Jared Leto’s Joker – desperate to appear deranged; incapable of appearing anything other than dull.
I left Bad Times slightly confused as to why I had enjoyed it so much, given the mixed performances and the rather insistent length and pacing. I think, ultimately, it’s because of the latitude of Goddard’s originality. It is vanishingly rare for a film – a major Hollywood film at that – to so stubbornly refuse to let its audience anticipate what’s going to happen.
Most contemporary mystery films are hardly mysteries at all; an attentive viewer can spot the twists coming a mile away. But Goddard, clearly, is different. His is a peculiar film, but a welcome one.