If ever there was a movie that is excessively overt in its desire to be the next ‘cult classic’, then this is most certainly it. Given that the term Tarantinoesque has been legitimised through its inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary, anybody seeking a film (other than those from the man himself) that might loosely demonstrate what the word means need look no further than this latest effort from Drew Goddard. The problem, of course, is that when you set out to copy the aesthetic, linguistic and narrative stylings of another artist (particularly one who himself has mastered the art of appropriation), you need to make something really special that stands out as highly original and perfectly executed. Having achieved exactly that with The Cabin in the Woods, in which he drew on the conventions and tropes of the horror genre to deliver something exceptionally clever, Goddard finds himself unable to replicate the kind of narrative smarts that made that film so good, despite the best efforts of a cast that includes the likes of Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth and Dakota Johnson.
The opening scene – in which four strangers check in to a Lake Tahoe hotel that literally straddles the California-Nevada border – is straight from the Tarantino playbook; rapid-fire dialogue, stylised surrounds and a collection of morally ambiguous characters, all of whom are drawn to the El Royale for very different reasons that come to light through a series of flashbacks. Although not connected in any way upon arrival, their plights become entwined through a chain of events that culminate in a bloody showdown from which only some emerge with their lives. It is Hamm’s slick, fast-talking ‘vacuum-cleaner salesman’ Laramie Sullivan who hogs the limelight in this extended sequence, desperate to win over fellow guests Father Flynn (Bridges), Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) and Emily Summerspring (Johnson) and take control of the narrative, much to the bemusement of the hapless Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the only employee in an establishment that is well past its prime. With introductions dispensed with, everybody heads off to their rooms and we watch as their separate stories inevitably converge.
The hotel being situated in two states is a nice gimmick (poker machines sit only in the Nevada side of the lobby), but actually has no real relevance to proceedings because, for narrative expedience, all of the guests choose to stay on the Nevada side (a $1 difference in room rate the somewhat convenient contrivance used to achieve such a cosy alignment). Whilst the back stories vary in both relevance and resonance, the secrets of the hotel itself prove as much the catalyst for what transpires as anything any of the guests have done. The late arrival of hippie cult leader Billy Lee (Hemsworth) triggers a final showdown that brings the film full circle with (almost) everybody again gathered back in the lobby, albeit under vastly different circumstances.
Of the performers, it is the lesser known Erivo and Pullman who are the standouts; the former an experienced stage performer who made her film debut in Steve McQueen’s Widows, while the latter (who is the son of Bill Pullman) featured in Battle of the Sexes and will also appear in the upcoming TV adaptation of Catch-22. Obviously cast for her singing capabilities, Erivo more than holds her own alongside her more illustrious co-stars, while Pullman’s Miller Initially presents as a somewhat inept caretaker/concierge before it emerges that he is, in fact, somebody irrevocably damaged by the experiences in his past and whose back story is the most efficiently told yet the most emotionally engaging. Cailey Spaeny also features as a character whose presence proves very problematic for Emily (and subsequently the others), while the likes of Nick Offerman and Xavier Dolan are hard to spot in small roles. Lacking the level of invention that made Goddard’s debut such a standout, Bad Times at the El Royale is enjoyable enough without living up to the forebear films from which it has drawn inspiration.