A PRIEST, a vacuum salesman, a hippie and a lounge singer walk into a hotel lobby.
It sounds like the start of a bad joke but it's the start of an entertaining if ultimately uneven Tarantino homage, Bad Times at the El Royale.
Calling the movie, written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, screenwriter of The Martian, Cloverfield) a Tarantino homage is not to write it off as mere imitation because it certainly has its own stylistic touches and ideas.
But it does give you a sense of the violence-fuelled time you're in for - though it, mercifully, doesn't have the chunks and chunks of Tarantino dialogue that used to be one of the reasons you committed but has recently, especially in The Hateful Eight, become smug and self-indulgent.
The El Royale is a hotel a year past its glory days after it lost its gaming licence. Its big drawing card is that it sits right on the California-Nevada state border - rooms on the California side cost $1 a night more and you can only buy liquor in one state and not the other.
There's a literal red line running right through its carpark and lobby area - a split that hints at the dualities and secrets of those within its walls.
Checking in for the night are Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the salesman who can't stop saying "accoutrement", Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the priest, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), the singer, and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a surly hippie who signs the register as "F**k You".
The lone employee who serves as clerk, bartender, housekeeper and more is Miles (Lewis Pullman), a nervous young man who tries to warn off the priest.
The early scenes establishing most of the players are framed in static wide shots, drinking in the elaborate mid-century design of its 1969 setting but also to keep the audience at an arm's length from the characters, a further masking of their true intentions.
There's an Agatha Christie feel to this first act, the secretive strangers gathered in a closed setting, which becomes cut off when a thunderstorm settles in and their cars are disabled.
That "rattled nerves" spirit courses through the first half as secrets are revealed and hidden spaces are unveiled. There's a suspenseful sequence involving Hamm's supposed salesman in the bowels of the hotel that's very effective in setting the tone.
Goddard balances tension and release well, undercutting pivotal moments with flashbacks and switching between the perspectives of characters, replaying the same scene from a different point-of-view. The nonlinear structure works well.
So it's a shame that it falls apart in the last act when Chris Hemsworth's charismatic cult leader character crashes the macabre party. The character isn't more than bluster and shirtlessness, with a heavy dose of penchant for violence. And the tone switches to something that's much more conventional.
All the characters are developed to varying degrees but it's Erivo's Darleen and Bridge's priest who are the most compelling. Erivo, in particular, steals the whole film with her down-on-her-luck singer. When she sings, it's so haunting and soulful.
Bad Times at the El Royale hints at the wider social anxiety of the turbulent late 1960s - there are references to the Vietnam War, Nixon, murderers penetrating elite communities, the Manson Family and more - but it's thematically unfocused.
If the movie was more consistent, the arbitrary violence wouldn't seem so purposeless. And at over two hours, the pacing starts to drag in the last 40 minutes - Goddard's Cabin in the Woods was better paced than this, though Bad Times at the El Royale is much more watchable than the three-hour long The Hateful Eight, with which it shares a similar strain.
At its core, Bad Times at the El Royale is an engrossing, entertaining noir-thriller with some effective set pieces and some standout performances. If only it had a bit more to say.
Bad Times at the El Royale is in cinemas now.
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