B-movie expert Quentin Tarantino has made a name for himself over the last three decades with stylish, overblown tributes to the best schlock of the '60s and '70s, and evidently, writer/director Drew Goddard is a fan. Or, at least his latest flick, noirish thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, feels suspiciously like a tribute to the master.
Set in 1969, the film follows a priest (Jeff Bridges), a salesman (Jon Hamm), a Motown singer (Cynthia Erivo), and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) into a rundown hotel — the eponymous El Royale — as they settle down for the night. A storm is brewing, and the night stands to reveal a whole lot of secrets — as well as Chris Hemsworth's abs, seeing as he appears (shirtless) later on in the movie as a Manson-esque cult leader.
The group is greeted by hotel employee Miles (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill Pullman), a nervous young guy, who informs them that the El Royale sits on the border of Nevada and California. On one side, there is legal gambling, and on the other, more expensive rooms, but as Miles makes clear, it doesn't really matter where they stay.
Goddard goes room by room, revealing the backstory of each character before progressing to the events on the night of El Royale's setting. No one is what they seem, and everyone is hiding something. The El Royale itself is included on the list, thanks to a secret corridor that features a two-way mirror into each room, which comes in handy for the owner's habit of surveilling the hotel's typically high-profile guests.
It's a complicated setup, but it feels familiar — like if Hateful Eight were set inside The Grand Budapest Hotel. El Royale is atmospheric and moody, and provides enough intrigue to keep you interested through most of its 140-minute runtime. But by the end, it's a low-calorie take on Tarantino's best.
All the hallmarks are there — from the film's use of retro-style title cards and throwback soundtrack selections, to its over-the-top violence and staggered storytelling. But with a much shorter resumé — he wrote and directed 2012's The Cabin in the Woods — Goddard stands little chance of beating Tarantino at his own game.
That's disappointing, considering that Goddard's Cabin expertly deconstructed the horror genre in a little over 90 minutes. Follow-up projects such as World War Z and The Martian (which Goddard wrote, not directed) offered similarly snappy takes on zombie movies and sci-fi films, so the imitation that's prevalent in El Royale sometimes fails to impress.
El Royale is also a little too soulless and sleek for its own good, opting for tone and style over substance and story. Rather than an allegory for today's world via the late 1960s, the film mostly delivers a vague sense of good-looking paranoia. Cabin was an exploration of millennial horrors, but any deeper meaning at the El Royale seems like an afterthought.
Still, Goddard provides ample space for his star-studded cast to play, often to great effect, thanks mostly to lesser-known stars like Erivo and Pullman. The production design is similarly engrossing, with the El Royale's endless corridors and secrets making it as much a character in the movie as any of its human players. The soundtrack is also great, much like a Tarantino film.