The Pitch: Writer-director Drew Goddard applies the byzantine plotting he mastered in The Cabin In the Woods to the crime-thriller genre. When an assortment of colorful guests descend on the El Royale — a novelty hotel split along the state lines of Nevada and California — it becomes clear that no one is quite who they say they are. Just like he did with Cabin, Goddard gets his kicks by introducing a variety of retro archetypes (Jeff Bridges as a priest, Jon Hamm as a traveling salesman, Dakota Johnson as a hardened vigilante, Lewis Pullman as a dopey concierge, Cynthia Erivo as a girl-group singer), then turning them on their heads as their true identities are revealed and the bodies start to pile up.
Royale with Cheese (And Anderson): Immensely satisfying both visually and narratively, Bad Times at the El Royale plays like a kinetic mashup of Pulp Fiction and The Grand Budapest Hotel. In the film’s first half, Goddard leans on the latter by patiently hanging on the El Royale’s kitschy symmetry, from the 1960s costuming to a carousel full of pie slices to that bright-red state line, which cleanly divides the lobby into the land of opportunity and the land of temptation. The two states become Biblical symbols of sorts, as everyone’s personal schemes begins to unravel.
By that point, we’re in a less-profane version of Tarantino Land, meaning the violence springs from drawn-out tension, and the timeline becomes non-linear to to reveal the characters’ respective backstories. In a further echo of Pulp Fiction, there are title cards that divide Bad Times up into chapters, and a film reel that may as well be standing in for the mysterious 666 briefcase.
Leader of the Pack: While all of the actors find the perfect balance between pathos and genre gimmickry, Erivo is the standout as Darlene Sweet, drawing from her musical-theatre background to illuminate several scenes with bombastic vocals. Whether she’s using her voice to simply practice in a mirror or mask a more nefarious activity taking place in the background, she’s the engine behind many of the film’s arresting audiovisual sequences. Music nerds will be drawn to a flashback that features clear cinematic counterparts to members of the Wrecking Crew and monstrous producer Phil Spector.
The Verdict: If there’s one complaint to be had about Bad Times at the El Royale, it’s that the best narrative surprises lie in the character’s backstories. Once most of them have been revealed well before the climax, the film has to rely on the action of the present rather than the intrigue of the past. While this is by no means a bad thing, expect it to become a different kind of roller coaster ride about 75 percent of the way through — one that’s more about who will get out alive than where everybody came from. Though not as unpredictable as the preceding two hours (and nowhere close to the dizzying final act of Cabin In the Woods), the resolution is still a lot of fun, straight out of a thrilling dime-store novel you’d keep by your bedside table.
Where’s It Playing?: After its Fantastic fest premiere, Bad Times at the El Royale will hit theaters on October 12th.