The similarities between Pulp Fiction and Bad Times at the El Royale go deeper than both films’ prominent usage of the word “royale.”
Rather than a Tarantino copycat, however, this pulpy crime drama from director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) feels fresh and invigorating as it intricately weaves together tales of a half-dozen strangers who converge on a stormy night in Lake Tahoe.
Set in 1969, the story starts like a joke in need of a punch line — a priest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), and a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm) walk into a rundown hotel that straddles the California-Nevada border. In its heyday, apparently the Rat Pack frequented the once-lavish resort, which gives guests the option of staying to the west (where there’s booze) or the east (where there’s gambling).
Two of those three guests aren’t who they say they are, which is revealed after they come into contact with others in search of redemption or revenge or both. The timid young hotel manager (Lewis Pullman) struggles to maintain order after the arrival of an apparent kidnapper (Dakota Johnson) and her captive, who are on the run from a murderous cult leader (Chris Hemsworth).
Their night turns into a fight for survival that includes a hidden bag of money, old surveillance equipment, plenty of booze, and constantly shifting loyalties.
Goddard’s deliberately paced and multilayered screenplay requires a significant buy-in from moviegoers. Those who aren’t so inclined might find the characters pretentious and off-putting, the narrative structure shallow and manipulative, and the abundant plot twists arbitrary.
Still, even those frustrated by the nonlinear storytelling and somewhat ponderous length can admire the visual approach to re-creating a vivid setting that accommodates almost all of the action. It’s meticulously detailed in terms of both function and texture. Plus, the vintage soundtrack is fantastic, including a handful of Motown a cappella numbers from Broadway star Erivo, making a scintillating big-screen debut.
The film is another example of Goddard using a single location to house a batch of quirky characters while subverting genre expectations and pop-culture tropes. The film’s long stretches of dialogue make its sudden bursts of violence that much more shocking and impactful.
Bad Times at the El Royale might lack a genuine emotional anchor, but it’s clever and amusing enough to avoid overstaying its welcome.