It took us 24 years, but we finally got a Pulp Fiction clone that’s worthy of standing beside the original. That would be Bad Times at the El Royale, a movie that takes its title from one of Quentin Tarantino’s most famous conversational exchanges. This crime thriller is derivative (because, y’know, it’s a clone), but it’s awfully clever about it.
The movie takes place some time during the Nixon administration at a once-grand resort hotel on Lake Tahoe that straddles the California-Nevada border. Arriving at this place during the offseason are a priest named Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a down-on-her-luck Motown singer named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), a Mississippi vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), and a flower child who refuses to give her name (Dakota Johnson). The salesman goes to his room, immediately loses his way-too-thick Southern accent, starts sweeping the suite for bugs, and is disconcerted to find more than 20 electronic surveillance devices planted there. Meanwhile, the hippie chick is seen dragging an unconscious, tied-up girl (Cailee Spaeny) from her car trunk to her room. For his part, Father Flynn gives Darlene a wrenching speech about the onset of his dementia, but he sure seems to know what he’s doing a few minutes later, when he slips something into her drink.
This is the work of Drew Goddard, whose one previous directing effort was the coruscating meta-slasher flick The Cabin in the Woods. (He also garnered an Oscar nomination for writing the screenplay for The Martian.) His copycatting of Tarantino comes across most in the structure of his script here, as the backstory of each character is set off by a title card, and the narrative keeps backtracking on itself to give us more information about events that are initially unexplained. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Martin Whist capture the seedy glamour of this mid-century hideaway quite well. Different criminal plots converge on this one spot at the same time, and Goddard makes them dovetail with enviable mastery. Much like Tarantino, Goddard makes excellent use of music, with a plethora of Motown covers sung by Erivo, a Broadway veteran in her first film role.
She gets a great understated moment after Chris Hemsworth shows up late as a sex cult leader. He’s an authentically terrifying villain, charismatic and whimsical enough to use a roulette wheel to decide which of his hostages to execute, and it’s immensely satisfying in a #MeToo kind of way when a tied-up Darlene takes the measure of him and lowers the boom: “You’re just a sad, fragile little man who preys on the weak and lost so he can fuck them … I’m tired of it. I’m bored.” Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan makes an impression, too, as a rapey music executive who makes Darlene’s skin crawl (and ours) just by touching her shoulder. The rest of the cast fits together neatly, as everyone seems to have buried secrets in their past. Lewis Pullman makes a particular impression as the hotel’s sole staffer who looks like a Boy Scout but has a dark side that terrifies even himself.
Maybe this B-grade thriller at heart doesn’t quite have enough of a payoff to justify its 141-minute running time. Still, it wears that running time lightly, and the conversational exchanges and plot twists keep us engaged enough to ensure that good times are had at this resort.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Starring Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, and Cynthia Erivo. Written and directed by Drew Goddard. Rated R.