Bad Times is a blast from the past, from the same director who ran the horror genre amok with Cabin in the Woods uses a similar plot device in Bad Times to a lesser effect
Director Drew Goddard (no relation to Jean-Luc Godard) wowed us in 2012 with his debut Cabin in The Woods which subverted the whole horror genre and gave us a hilarious take on the usual tropes that come with the beloved genre. The subversion came from the fact that the characters in the cabin were being watched very closely by a corporation that controls every aspect of their fate for a greater purpose; all the while this plot device is being used to dissect horror films and why we love them.
Bad Times is a similar distillation of that concept for the crime-thriller genre and it is aesthetically perfect. The opening scene is of a man (Nick Offerman) who checks into the hotel 10 years prior to the movie’s timeline; he buries a suitcase full of money under his hotel room for safekeeping before getting shot. The film has a non linear storyline, at first we see the principal characters check into the hotel room one by one, then after all the cards are laid out we get a back story after each plot reveal. The first ones to check in are a priest ( Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel), a failed back up singer (Cynthia Erivo as Darlene) and a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm as Seymour). The El Royale Hotel is located on the border between California and Nevada split halfway by a red line; interestingly if the guests were to choose a room on the California section of the hotel it costs a dollar more. The hotel is mostly vacant and the only employee with multiple jobs is Miles and he is inexplicably nowhere to be found as these three are attempting to check in. He eventually steps out and gives them a tour of the hotel and explains the Nevada and California border line and how alcohol is prohibited on the Nevada side while gambling is prohibited on the California side. Miles helps all the guests check in including the last guest who came in late, Dakota Johnson.
Part of the excitement of this film is not knowing what kind of movie it’s trying be. The setup reminded me of Identity (2003 John Cusack movie) where the characters are stuck for a night in a motel in Nevada because of a storm, all of which are also present in Bad Times. The characters in Bad Times barely get a back story so there is not just one character that you’re supposed to be rooting for; they are all just pawns on a chess board. The film is about the numerous secrets surrounding the El Royale Hotel and the secrets the characters are keeping. To reveal what makes the hotel secretive and sinister would take the fun out of the film, but it is Seymour’s discovery of the hotel’s underbelly that gets the plot moving.
Each character is interesting enough, Darlene for instance has just been fired from her back up singer gig for belting out high notes and sort of stealing the scene from the main singer. Her boss is played by Xavier Dolan (French Director of the 2014 coming of age drama Mommy) who has a British accent in the film, and he tells Darlene that she is costing him for every minute she wastes in the recording session. So her dreams are cut short and she now has to settle for small gigs at the Reno and perhaps she is the purest soul in the godforsaken hotel. While each character has some agenda, Darlene is only there to rehearse for her gig. Cynthia Erivo is thus the standout in the great ensemble, especially since her singing actually becomes the score during a tense scene in the third act. Another standout is Chris Hemsworth who shows up in the third act to wreak havoc and he plays a Manson-like cult figure, telling of its time, who is connected to Dakota Johnson’s character. The film’s 60’s soundtrack is fitting and another highlight in the film among other late 60’s subject matters that it manages to incorporate, including the Vietnam war. All this being said Bad Times could have certainly been a better time, the film’s third act plays it safe and the pieces that were set up just don’t seem to fit quite right. But a film like this is to be appreciated for its vibe, aesthetic and its use of exquisite music; Goddard’s second feature is thoroughly entertaining and impeccably made. (8/10)