The latest from writer-director Drew Goddard is clearly influenced by Quentin Tarantino. Bad Times at the El Royale is a slick yet grimy feature that comes in with some weight but still maintains style. It is an ensemble piece with complex characters with a few skeletons in their closets. At times playful, Bad Times is a good-looking slice of pie that, depending on your taste, could either be delicious or terrible.

Bad Times stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman and Chris Hemsworth. Based on an original script written by Goddard, everything takes place at a once-bustling hotel which rests on the California-Nevada border. With its best days long gone, the El Royale is now a pit stop for sketchy people with rough pasts and terrible secrets. On this particular day the El Royale hosts an ailing priest, Fr. Daniel Flynn (Bridges), a struggling singer in Darlene Sweet (Erivo), a southern rebel in Emily Summerspring (Johnson), and a vacuum cleaner salesman in Laramie Sullivan (Hamm). Miles Miller (Pullman) is the only employee on site, and his cowardly demeanor belies the secrets he’s hidden away.

Goddard provides backstories for all the guests, and thanks to geography (and little bad luck) their lives are at a literal and figurative crossroads. Also, the hotel is a hub for secret activity since each room has a two-way mirror. One’s imagination can easily dream of many sordid and illicit activities occurring there. The worst in people can be revealed behind closed doors, and that notion hold true with Daniel, Darlene, Emily and Laramie. And once they discover the El Royale’s ”peeping tom policy” things obviously get crazy and dangerous.

Goddard, based on this and his similarly off-the-wall crazy The Cabin in the Woods, loves to show off life's shady side. The problem with Bad Times is that the mood is so grim it’s obvious that every character is shady. I don’t want to go into any details because each character’s reveal is a highlight, but it’s interesting that so many deceitful people could end up at the same place at the same time. That’s why the El Royale is such an important character of sorts since its shadiness mirrors its guests (and even its lone employee). It resting on the border of two states emphasizes the fact everyone involved has two sides. It’s a slick euphemism from Goddard as he clearly wants to shower his latest in all kinds of motifs, noir and pulp.

Despite the mood and tone, Goddard shot a sumptuous film. Bright and dark colors clash, much like the film’s characters. With help from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina and The Avengers), Goddard executes an impressive tracking shot which reveals the hotel’s major secret while simultaneously pulling out the skeletons from its temporary tenants. It’s a sight to behold because it’s a perfect example of the film’s desire to mix beauty with ugliness and good with bad. Bedsides, I haven’t seen anything quite like it.

The music is a fantastic and welcome throwback - some of it is provided by Erivo (who’s a revelation) and her sublime vocals, who before this film was busy on Broadway winning Tony Awards.

With the first and second acts looking good, Bad Times gets too confident with a messier-than-it-should-be third act. That’s where Hemsworth comes in, mainly shirtless and clearly inspired by Charles Manson. His appearance is an abrupt timestopper, but he's also a microcosm of changing times. With Hemsworth’s Billy Lee in play, he’s supposed to shake things up, despite the fact things are shaken up plenty. Billy is as charming as he is good-looking but his presence disrupts the flow Goddard’s previous characters provided. Even though Hemsworth is good, Billy as a character doesn’t work and makes the ending even more violent than it should be. But that’s likely what Goddard wants.

Another drawback to the proceedings is the deliberate pace. With a running time of 140 minutes, Bad Times drags, mostly during the final act. Wittier dialogue would’ve helped, and Goddard has proved he can provide that (per The Martian and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but the dark tone again got in the way and overshadowed any attempts at levity.

Regardless, Goddard’s latest has more good times than bad times. His attempts at paying homage to film noir are successful, and simultaneously he provides timely commentary. This is pure pulp fiction and worthy of being labeled Tarantinoesque.

3.5 stars out of 5


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