Bad Times at the El Royale offers up a buffet of nostalgia. Set in a once-copacetic, now- déclassé novelty hotel just outside of Reno, Nevada, the flashback-heavy, perspective-shifting thriller is a throwback to the high-concept, low-survival-rate Pulp Fiction wannabes of the ’90s. (The Tarantino influence is so inescapable you might call it a sequel to Four Rooms were it not for the fact that it primarily takes place in only three.) With Nixon and the Vietnam War on the TV—and late in the film, a grubby but charismatic cult leader collecting lost children with sweet-sounding nonsense—the chaos that characterized the tail end of the ’60s adds to the ramping sense that everything’s about to go to hell. Then there’s the sophisticated sleaze of the El Royale’s plush, glass-laden ’50s decor—the kind of coquettish design that ages quickly into kitsch.
Given the way writer-director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) revels in the trappings of decades past, it seems fitting that one of the first characters we meet—an obnoxiously garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman from Biloxi, Mississippi—is played by Jon Hamm. But the inevitable comparison with Mad Men is an unfortunate one for Bad Times, as it highlights the hollowness of the movie’s approach to history. Until its resolution, Bad Times is a fun-enough romp through retro genre pleasures. But when it drags in the real world in its final scenes, it reveals itself to be just as fatuous as most such nostalgic pastiches tend to be.
When the film opens, Hamm’s Laramie Sullivan has been waiting in the lobby for quite a while. Three other guests arrive in quick succession. Like Laramie, none are who they present themselves to be. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges in an above-average Jeff Bridges role) is the most obvious liar. It’s not until Laramie discovers a hallway connecting each of the rooms—with a one-way mirror looking into each unit and a camera propped up at the end of the corridor—that we learn that hostile hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) has tied a girl (Cailee Spaeny) to a chair in her room and that, next door, the reserved Darlene Sweet (Tony winner Cynthia Erivo) is a superstar chanteuse the world forgot to discover. The El Royale’s sole worker, Miles (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill), has a closet full of skeletons himself. An unknown number of the guests are after a bag that one of the guests (Nick Offerman) buried under the floors 10 years ago and died protecting. The rest just have the worst luck.
It’s a solid premise, and the mostly moving backstories—buoyed by the superb ensemble and a lovelorn Motown soundtrack—make most of the movie’s 140 minutes sail by. Bad Times is particularly strong in its middle section, as it mimics the charms of a hotel stay, such as getting to know an inviting stranger and wondering how much of their geniality is a put-on. Father Flynn, Emily, and Darlene are especially sharply drawn as individuals trying to make the most out of the calamitous hands they’ve been dealt. The reluctant alliance that two of the characters forge makes clear that Goddard’s intentions are to make a stylish high-body-count flick with heart. When violence strikes in the film’s first two hours or so, each blow feels justified.
Then, a nosedive. Critics generally don’t spend a lot of time discussing films’ endings (for obvious reasons), but the resolution to Bad Times is so flippant and formulaic that it feels like a callous betrayal of all the texture and deftness that came before it. The slide begins with the arrival of a squad of armed goons, ambushing the everyone-for-themselves dynamic that had powered the preceding acts. Even then, Chris Hemsworth is briefly fun as a late-arriving Charles Manson–esque beach-bum Jesus, while Erivo, who stands out as both an actress and a singer in the film, delivers a pitch-perfect reading of a pitch-perfect line that forms her grand “fuck you” to the Big Bad. But the hybrid engine of emotional realism and extreme circumstances that had kept Bad Times chugging along is tossed aside when the film’s least developed, most nerd-servicey character takes center stage. You may wish you’d opted for an early checkout.