3 (out of 4)
Drew Goddard's praiseworthy pastiche The Cabin in the Woods was a cunning, subversive debut – his follow-up similarly revels in straying off expected paths, this time with respect to comic thrillers and neo-noirs. The writer-director saunters down more mature avenues past his meta mayhem, selling us a second feature on a bigger promise of rejuvenating originality. Bad Times at the El Royale is damn near an equally absurd blast of untamed postmodern genre fireworks but it doesn't manage to exceed the limitations of imitation. Goddard has merely swapped out slashers for Tarantino flicks.
Rather than skillfully cater to middlebrow, Reddit-tier self-awareness and smug parody, instead this film is populated by original, complex and memorable characterization without sarcastically making light of archetypes. The plot is a bit flimsy given the formidable length but the runtime's easy passin' even when the story warrants it least. The Hitchcockian obsession with voyeurism – Goddard sure has a thing for two-way mirrors – is the one dominant shared trait between Cabin and Bad Times, and both films are embellished by a level of thematic scopophilia.
But my oh my does Goddard have Quentin’s intentions firmly at heart: there are chapter titles, overlapping and fragmented nonlinear storylines, satiric needle drops, bombastic monologues amidst smoothly detached discourse and occasions of criminal violence. It's far from Pulp Fiction but nearly all of Bad Times' pivoted motivations and twists of fate have their own purpose. Caught at the border of greatness between Nevada and California, Goddard's sophomore song and dance is an ambitious yarn – a full and overdone fable fashioned for acute escapism by its systematic unpredictability and the commitment of performers known (Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson and Christ Hemsworth) and unknown (Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman). Hamm's sleuthing spy posing as a vacuum cleaner salesman and Erivo's struggling songstress are enthralling in their portions of the story. On the other hand Hemsworth's third act arrival as pedophile cult leader isn't as narratively invigorating as you might think.
Goddard principally invokes scintillating situations and novel conflicts whilst expanding his capabilities as a visually instinctive talent. In the 1970s setting, the ironically fitted pop songs provide whimsical undertones in the eccentric atmosphere, but select soul samples only sometimes yield the precise ambiance. With his influences so bare it's not quite enough to confirm the value of Goddard's own attributes despite how handsomely orchestrated and persistently intriguing Bad Times is in its most bewitching passages. The multifaceted vantages across simultaneous events, capricious plotting and optic fastidiousness nevertheless deem El Royale well worth a visit.
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