'Bad Times At The El Royale' Review: Diet Quentin Tarantino Has Big-Budget Popcorn Thrills [Fantastic Fest]

Drew Goddard's Bad Times At The El Royale is Tarantino Lite, but not as an insult. Crooked paths collide in the heart of Lake Tahoe's hospitality crossroads. Drifters clutch onto secrets – in addition to the hotel's own chequered history – and that's expected, but buildup material is often more exciting than any elongated payoff. For a twisty border-straddling government conspiracy thriller, Goddard plays it a wee bit safe. Maybe another character stereotype or two could have livened the party up? As is, unsavory room renters are mere vessels for Vietnam war rhetoric and an inevitable gyration by virtue of Chris Hemsworth's always-unbuttoned Abercrombie model look.

Top priority for a seedy hotel noir chiller, it appears?

At the El Royale, accommodations aren't as 5-star as they used to be. Miles (Lewis Pullman), the lone clerk and employee, checks in guests after describing the hotel's unique California/Nevada divider painted red down the whole establishment. Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) all arrive looking for a room, all with their unique reasoning. As Miles assigns the travelers California or Nevada themed accommodations, it becomes evident that vacuum salesmen – Laramie – and priests – Father Flynn – aren't the upstanding citizens they sell themselves as. Cue danger hippie Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) waltzing through heavy rain with his glistening abs exposed about to bring a world of hurt down on the El Royale and all who stop there.

From the minute we pass by the El Royale's Vegas-tacky sign, past the massive front doors, and into a gaudily appropriate late 60s lobby, Goddard's production team impresses via locational intrigue from obscure details like clashing color patterns splitting the El Royale into different states to more sinister undertones such as two-way mirrors, hidden wiretaps, and expired sandwiches inside old-school luncheonette vending walls. Seamus McGarvey's cinematography takes boxy hotel rooms and frames such as a stage play, capturing Goddard's heavy saturation of coolant outdoor blues and amber indoor flames. The El Royale blends classified "management" question marks with roadside warmth in that you come to know the structure's inner workings like a close friend.

As pulpy mainstream works are so good at, Bad Times At El Royale needle drops perfected Billboard hits atop hotel invasion chaos. Deep Purple's "Hush" blares in the background as Hemsworth's cult leader Billy Lee grinds his Buffalo Bill dance with seductive, ab-showcasing menace towards a tied-up Father Flynn. Darlene's voice of an angel stays silent when striking another hotel stayer with a champagne bottle as "Bernadette" punches the chorus. Goddard depicts no issue setting a period-happy tone that's so very mixtape worthy, adding to the aesthetic charm of this Identity riff with gangsters and Far Cry 5 undertones. Not to overshadow Michael Giacchino's chilly score in the least, but there's so much concert nod-along fun to be had with criminal madmen and bumpin' tunes.

To no shock, performances are top-notch from Jeff Bridge's priest with memory loss issues to Dakota Johnson's shotgun-Sally kidnapper. As each character checks in, their facade is debunked by entering Miles' spy corridor. Jon Hamm so skillful at laying on an appliance salesman's thick slickster drawl only to eventually reveal himself an American special agent. Lewis Pullman a needle junkie who peeps on whoever his bosses tell him to. Chris Hemsworth doing exactly what Chris Hemsworth should – leisurely floating through fields of yellow flowers with his shirt blown open by the wind and porn stache a prickly caterpillar of deadly mystique. Oh, and Cynthia Erivo? A songstress who times her rhythmic claps to the beat of a hammer and chisel.

Bad Times at the El Royale Release Date

Performative withholding of information is well in each actor's hands, and they keep the engines revving.

Bad Times At The El Royale continues a theme of dialogue that's fed up with manipulative male tyrants, in this case coming from Erivo's hostage singer. As she's tied up, Hemsworth's calm maniac about to spin the roulette wheel to determine who eats a bullet, she stops her captor mid-sentence as he attempts to monologue his way into reason. "[He] talks so much he thinks he believes in something but really just wants to fuck who he wants to fuck." Hemsworth goes to interject, only to be cut off once again by Erivo. It's such a *perfect* moment. This bound, exhausted, so very *done* woman sick of another male fraud masquerading around with only adultery on his mind. Phenomenal really when you consider Erivo's facial expression against Hemsworth's' busted egomaniac.

You'd think all these cards make Bad Times At The El Royale a stacked full house, but Goddard's gamble is never as depraved or twisted as we'd so hope. Curveballs are all hangers that dip slowly in plain sight. Time is manipulated so we witness the same few events happen over and over – from different perspectives – calling into question the film's almost 140-minute length. As hands are revealed, conspiracies uncovered, motives exposed, the chase proves to be much more engaging than a burn-it-down finale that climaxes in familiar fashion. After Cabin In The Woods, Bad Times At The El Royale is comparatively and sometimes a bit disappointingly pedestrian. Nasty conceptualization made of beats we're noticeably accustomed to.

Needless to say, Bad Times At The El Royale is a loaded deck with multiple wildcards – none better than Jeff Bridges' felt-table-chewin' man of the cloth who fancies his whiskey. Drew Goddard's sophomore feature is hyper-stylized and smells of rich 60s mahogany detailing, enough to elevate a rather predictable containment mystery. Nothing exponentially mind-blowing minus the El Roayle's signature down-the-middle split and Chris Hemsworth's hypnotic pelvic thrusts, but still worth the price of admission for genre fans in need of some big-budget popcorn thrills. Can you really go wrong with Bridges, alcohol, and a missing bag of cash? I submit that you cannot.

/Film Review: 7 out of 10