Bad Times at the El Royale: Neo-noir homage is as split as the eponymous hotel – sincerely Tarantino while lacking the refined edges

The down-on-its-luck El Royale has seen better days – yet its seedy, glamourous energy draws strangers with dark paths together one stormy night. Motivations are clouded and blood is spilled as the group struggles to survive the secrets uncovered in the hotel straddling two states.

The El Royale’s glitz stands out a mile. From the neon-laced promotional posters to our first glimpse of the hotel’s flouro sign in the opening moments, Bad Times at the El Royale is a sight to behold. A dedicated homage to the work of Quentin Tarantino, with call-backs to Agatha Christie thrillers, director/writer Drew Goddard makes numerous elements work together. This includes getting the best out of a star-studded cast.

John Hamm oozes Mad Men charm and casual sexism as Southern vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan, and Jeff Bridges sells the ‘priest with a dark past’ bit nicely. Cynthia Erivo has been getting positive press as down-on-her-luck singer Darlene Sweet – I thought she was quiet and retiring, overly dependent on singing. Cailee Spaeny excelled as fragile cult victim Ruth Summerspring. Chris Hemsworth, meanwhile, flexes and flaunts his bad boy role with comfortable ease. But it’s the sum of the effort that really makes Bad Times… tick, tied together with a worthy narrative.

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Goddard’s spec script, seemingly snatched up by top Hollywood execs with little reading time, is taut despite its long run. The episodic approach to showing what the El Royale’s guests are doing behind closed doors is straight up Pulp Fiction, and while the structure is entertaining, it’s nothing new. With excellent work like Cabin in the Woods and The Martian on his CV, the plot isn’t Goddard’s best – but it’s pretty damn good.

His directing skills come to the fore instead here. Only his second feature outing, Goddard makes excellent use of the hotel’s hidden rooms, secret passages, and split personality decor with compelling cuts, bold colours and sweeping camera shots. You never feel completely orientated in the El Royale – and that’s the way he wants you to feel, baffled by faded glamour. Trimmed in decadent gold, the hotel’s dividing line between California and Nevada sets the stage for a palette split between warm reds and cool blues. The film’s set design is glorious, offering an opulent backdrop for the contrastingly murky motivations of the characters assembled in the hotel’s locked rooms.

One area the film is lacking, however, is in constructing the history of the hotel itself. While the characters onscreen are each intriguing, the building itself undoubtedly hogs the camera. The hotel’s back story is covered in sparse detail. We never get any more information on the perv hotspot than a façade layer of 60s pop-culture references and notable name drops. In fact, the layers of cultural pastiche become difficult to believe, with each name drop of Nixon, the Vietnam War, and Deep Purple becoming increasingly distracting from the plot.

Overall though, Bad Times… offers a fast-paced and engaging tribute to the crime thriller genre. It’s got more than just Chris Hemsworth with his shirt off going for it.

The most Tarantino movie never made by the man hits high notes, intriguing for 140 short minutes. Sincerity to the premise would have raised its score, but it’s still worth the watch. 7/10.

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