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Friday Flicks: Good Times at "Bad Times"

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Visual Arts Issue: October 2018
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A star-studded, 60s-set thriller.

Bad Times at the El Royale—Wearing a priest's collar and a wry, mischievous smile, Jeff Bridges shows up at the front desk of the title hotel, which whimsically straddles the Nevada/California line. So, at about the same time, does Jon Hamm, decked out in a plaid sport coat and a ripe, mock-courtly southern accent. So does Cynthia Erivo, looking a lot like a Motown backup singer of the Shirelles/Chiffons/Vandellas school, and so does Dakota Johnson as a chic hippie type.

They're greeted by an intensely nervous young concierge (Lewis Pullman). Before long we realize that his anxiety is warranted. Not only do each of his guests carry dangerous secrets, but so does the El Royale itself. Later on Chris Hemsworth comes swaggering in, shirt unbuttoned, and things get even freakier. The period is the late 60s, and as the twisting plot strands gradually unravel and entangle with each other, the movie thematically picks at the scabs of that decade's nightmarish side—the horrors of Vietnam, or of Manson-ish death cults, covert intelligence run amok, etc.

Written and directed by Drew Goddard (of Cabin in the Woods and Cloverfield), this is a very Tarantino-esque film. It's long; it has short bursts of violence punctuating lots of talk by first-rate actors. The period music is used keenly, sometimes powerfully. The narrative has formal "chapters," a flexible, backtracking chronology, and repeated views of the same events from multiple perspectives. This is strictly speculation, but it wouldn't surprise me if this is the script, or a rewrite of it, that Goddard ran home and wrote after he saw Pulp Fiction back in 1994, and is only now in a position to produce.

Unlike most of the Tarantino imitations from early '90s, however, Bad Times at the El Royale has its own distinctive character. The veterans like Hamm and Bridges and Hemsworth ham it happily up in their juicy, showy roles, while relative newcomers like Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman (Bill Pullman's kid) give serious, focused performances. The resulting mix of attitudes keeps the movie from tipping over too far into either campy fluff or a draggy downer, and Godard pulls off a few flashy, tour de force directorial set pieces; one involving hand-claps is especially good.

Bridges is on his game, underplaying so skillfully that it would be easy to take him for granted, to miss that it's one of his best performances in years, providing some of the befuddled charm he carried through The Big Lebowski. But the true dramatic

center of Bad Times at the El Royale is the Brit stage actress Erivo, who delivers her lines with a moral directness that gives this gimmicky, self-consciously constructed movie a gravity and consequence it might otherwise lack. At a key moment in the film, at the center of chaos and bloodshed, her character quietly makes easing another person's agony more important even than her own life, and Erivo makes you believe it.

Opening wide this week.