We’ve had a fair bit of nostalgia for the cinema of the 1970s and 1980s the past decade or so, and if you’re counting forward, that means the 1990s are up next. Enter Bad Times at the El Royale, a film that hearkens back to just after Quentin Tarantino introduced a world of ensemble crime movies whose narratives disrespected traditional chronology, and were separated into chapter headings that often bore a funny character name. Fortunately, for cinephiles coming of age at that time, that was also a time when anything seemed possible at the movies, and El Royale carries a bit of that pixie dust as well.
Drew Goddard’s previous film, The Cabin in the Woods, was a deconstruction of the slasher genre. So too might this be considered a deconstruction of the Tarantino template if it weren’t essentially lacking in irony. Despite splashes of humour, Bad Times mostly plays it straight, which allows it to function as an homage to Tarantino and his many imitators, rather than a parody. And even though this template became familiar enough to warrant parody, it turns out that a latter day straightforward addition to the genre is actually a welcome thing.
If a sitcom is a comedy that results from a motley crew of humorous personality types mashed together in a high-concept scenario, then you might say that Tarantino pioneered the “sitcrime.” The situation occupying our assorted assembly in this case is a hotel on the border of Nevada and California circa 1973 – in fact, right on the border. The high concept of this hotel is that the state line bisects it, so that you can choose to stay in a room in California or a room in Nevada. You’ll pay a dollar more for the California room, but you can still use the slot machines in gambling-friendly Nevada. Only this hotel lost its gambling license some years back, and with it, almost all of its customers.
Except on this particular night, four strangers have converged at the hotel for reasons that range from merely secretive to downright nefarious. They’re so different from one another that they almost suggest one of those jokes where the setup is that they all walk into a bar – a comparison encouraged by the fact that one of them is a priest, or says he is anyway. That’s Jeff Bridges, and he’s joined by Cynthia Erivo, who says she’s a singer; Jon Hamm, who says he’s a vacuum salesman; and Dakota Johnson, who doesn’t say much of anything but is pegged by Hamm’s character as a hippie. She drops an f-bomb in the guest ledger instead of signing her name.
We know from the opening that there is a bag full of money under the floor boards of one of these rooms, but we don’t know which room, who knows it’s there, who will get it, and who will die trying, probably via an unexpected gun blast coming out of nowhere.
It’s been long enough since a movie like this has achieved this kind of visibility that a person tends to forget how much fun these movies were, before they became overdone. You can likely think of a half-dozen bad movies like this circa 2002, but in the first few years after Pulp Fiction, there were some quite good ones as well. Goddard hasn’t tried to shake the comparisons to QT by filling his soundtrack with classic soul tunes, which is to say nothing of the ones belted live by Cynthia Erivo, a star in the making who will also have a showcase in next month’s Widows, Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 12 Years a Slave.
Erivo is nominally the film’s central character and certainly its heart, but she contributes just one of the entertaining performances that give the film its considerable legs. At nearly 70 years old, Bridges seems as deft as he has in a couple years, while Hamm and Johnson are both performing on multiple levels as well. The scene stealer might be the Aussie addition to the cast, Chris Hemsworth, whose involvement is backloaded, and would almost qualify as a surprise if he weren’t all over the posters. Suffice it to say that this is not Thor, and not really a Hemsworth you’ve seen before.
One of the keys to those 90’s crime ensembles was the way actors were deployed unexpectedly, either because they were being unearthed after a fallow period (John Travolta in Pulp Fiction) or were known primarily for their involvement in mainstream genre movies (Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction). Goddard borrows that same guiding principle as none of the cast “seem” like they would be in this movie, necessarily. That allows Goddard to spring some surprises that defy our expectations, and stay just one step ahead of the audience in their cleverness.
Bad Times at the El Royale is not only lacking in irony, but also in cynicism. Almost every character in this film comes under suspicion at one point or another, and most are guilty of something regrettable. Yet where Goddard strays from his source of inspiration is that he doesn’t kill anyone for sport, for a quick laugh. He’s earnest about the flaws that define us and sometimes overwhelm us, and in a final welcome surprise, that doesn’t keep the movie from being fun.