Tricksy, labyrinthine plots are somewhat a double edged sword. Go too simple and the audience pulls way out in front, able to second guess every twist and turn. Go too far the other way, however and you simply have a film as impenetrable as a nun’s gusset and twice as frustrating. There’s also another option, taking so much time moulding your story that the tone and runtime suffer.
In a half-assed twist of my own, sadly Bad Times suffers somewhat from the latter.
Various, disparate lost souls converge at the El Royale hotel, an aging building straddling the California/Nevada border, where shady deals have gone down in years past. The group contain a singer on her way to Vegas (Cynthia Erivo), an old priest (Jeff Bridges), a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) and a mysterious woman (Dakota Fanning), needless to say some, if not all of these enigmatic figures are not who they originally claim. As the evening wears on and rain lashes the parking lot, each of the patrons of the hotel undergo their own harrowing evening, every story merging in and out of every one’s else’s. Who will be left standing after a night that includes scandal, cults, hidden money and cold blooded murder?
Firstly, the good points. This is an A-grade cast who bring their best to a true ensemble piece. Everyone gets their moment to shine, be it Erivo’s heavenly singing pipes, to Bridges chewing on his backstory like it’s tobacco, to Hamm turning his charming douche bag persona up to full. And then, looking like he’s never buttoned a shirt in his life, in swaggers Chris Hemsworth as cult leader Billy Ray, both the actor and character swiping the movie away from everybody.
The script by director Drew Goddard slaloms all over the place, wrong footing the audience at every turn and exhibits a healthy disregard to the character’s survival skills, no matter how famous the actor playing them may be.
Now this is all and good, but you frequently get the feeling that Goddard is almost too in love with his twisting tale and in his earnestness to tell it has sacrificed pace in favour of a more streamlined narrative. It’s something the director fallen foul of before, him first movie, the magnificent Cabin In The Woods, was so obsessed with it’s own funky weirdness it totally forgot to be scary. But a unscary horror movie, made well enough, can still be a good movie, a thriller that sometimes flags in pacing is not going to be forgiven as easily and that’s where El Ray falls down a little.
There’s also a sense that other, classic filmmakers have, to put it bluntly, done this sort of thing far better. Hitchcock, Tarantino, Polanski and DePalma all made their careers on stuff exactly like this and Goddard just isn’t in their league… yet.
If it sounds like I’m being overly hard on Bad Times, it’s because I wanted it to succeed so badly, and in many ways it does. But it falls short of being an all time classic.
By all means book into the El Ray, just don’t expect to stay more than once.