“Bad Times at the El Royale” review Gripping, twisted thriller is solid entertainment with mild rough patches

It looks like we’re moving on from describing mysteries and thrillers just as “Hitchcockian.” There’s no catchy one-word phrase to say it, but for now, we can officially describe movies like “Bad Times at the El Royale” as Tarantino-esque. Though one might argue that there are hundreds of movies out there that copy the eccentric director’s style, none do it so well as Drew Goddard’s new film here. I’m not one to worship at the altar of Quentin Tarantino (I have problems with “Inglorious Basterds” and “Django Unchained”), but there’s no denying that his ultraviolent films have a unique, addictive quality to them. With multiple unhinged characters, grand settings, and buckets of gore, he makes his art in a way that no one dare tell him otherwise.

It begs the question then: is “Bad Times at the El Royale” a copycat film or an original work with stylistic similarities? Because the first impressions can seem all-too-similar to Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” (2015), among other works. In “Bad Times,” seven strangers happen upon the El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe, right on the line between California and Nevada. Nearly all of the characters house ulterior motives, and it only takes one misstep, one wrong-place-wrong-time situation to start a fire. In fact, part of the mystery is figuring out which character isn’t the villain, or at least isn’t a dark person. That being said, “Bad Times” is NOT a Tarantino knockoff. It just borrows a lot while still having an original core.

Jeff Bridges (left) poses as a priest in “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Cynthia Erivo is a travelling singer he befriends.

While Tarantino films pride themselves on witty dialogue, circling around the point and providing us with outrageous (almost comedic) moments, “Bad Times” instead drops clever dialogue for deep themes and emotional appeal. This mostly works, as Goddard inserts religious ideals and culture clashes into a story about perversion and redemption – and how they often coil and collide with each other. Jeff Bridges plays a man posing as a priest (revealed in the trailer), but Lewis Pullman, playing the hotel bellboy, believes that a priest is just what he needs; he’s apparently “done terrible things.” While this moral struggle goes on, we’re introduced to a hedonistic cult from Chris Hemsworth’s character, and the two ideologies clash. And what better setting to have this sinister battle than in the late 1960s?

This is the area where “Bad Times” hits some rough patches. While the religious themes work for the overall plot, they invite a distinct emotional appeal that is neither fleshed out nor worth it. The ending is almost sappy, which is not what you want for a dark thriller. The last few minutes are far too emotional for their own good, and hurt the movie in the long run.

“Bad Times” is much more than an intense murder mystery. It reflects the depravity and traps within peoples’ minds, while appealing to the senses with jump scares, strong performances, and stunning camerawork.

The best of these performances is by far Chris Hemsworth. Playing cult leader Billy Lee, he walks the tough tightrope between charming and evil, tampering with victims in a playful way – only pleasing to him. He’s reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008, Christopher Nolan), but minus the revolting scars. He should expect some attention come awards season. Cynthia Erivo is another standout performance as a travelling singer, and though she doesn’t quite steal the show like Hemsworth, she commands respect onscreen from those with bigger resumes (Jeff Bridges, for example). I was personally excited to see Jon Hamm in a more dramatic cinematic role, and while his talent seems undervalued time and again for the silver screen, he does very well with what he’s given here.

Speaking of Erivo’s role as a singer, the soundtrack of this movie is spectacular. It compiles some of the greatest hits of the era, and two sequences revolve around the hotel jukebox, blaring out tunes that match the given atmosphere. My personal favorites were “Bernadette” by The Four Tops and a cover of “He’s a Rebel” by The Crystals; both perfectly molded to the story and setting, and they’re excellent songs. Michael Giacchino, arguably one of cinema’s finest composers, compliments the soundtrack with a suspenseful and booming score (to match the dramatic plot twists).

Following in the Tarantino-esque fashion, “Bad Times” boasts several long takes and tracking shots to encapsulate performances and set the stage. Plus, the editing style is flawless, from the opening scene of jump cuts to the extended still shots of tense characters in the face of terror. The overall aesthetic of the movie is downright awesome, and production design is phenomenal. It’s too bad though that many of the longer movies of 2018 can’t avoid feeling their runtimes. “Bad Times” is perhaps the worst so far, clocking in at 2 hours and 21 minutes, and we’re aware of each second when we’re nearing the conclusion.

Now that the gates are officially opened for obvious Quentin Tarantino-esque films, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a fine start. Though its odd emotional appeal and length hinder it from being a flawless masterpiece, it has ingenious sequences and brilliant thematic concepts that make it a stand-out.

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