The El Royale is a roomy, tacky Lake Tahoe hotel — literally straddling California and Nevada, with a wing in each state — where you should be very afraid to stay, given the hidden cameras, secret corridors, two-way mirrors, and messy corpses. The corpses belong to the characters in Drew Goddard’s ’60s-set chamber opera Bad Times at the El Royale, most of whom get splattered over the walls or (on the Nevada side) slot machines.
Linearity gets shredded, too. The movie feels like the work of a man whose young mind was opened by Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown — as well it should have been, given that Quentin Tarantino’s second and third features were marvels of forward-backward-sideward storytelling. Goddard regularly stops and rewinds to fill in the backstories of the people in each of the occupied rooms: an ex-girl-group singer (Cynthia Erivo) in town for a dead-end Reno gig; a priest (Jeff Bridges) with a suspiciously wavering grasp of the liturgy; a vacuum cleaner sales exec (Jon Hamm) with a southern accent out of summer-stock Tennessee Williams; and a blue-jeaned hippie chick (Dakota Johnson) bearing live cargo. Also figuring prominently in the narrative are an emotional basket case of a hotel manager (Lewis Pullman) and a Jim Morrison–like cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) with extraordinarily well-defined abs.
Goddard, who was born in 1979, means in his movie-ish way to evoke an entire era. He gives us moony cultists, a Phil Spector stand-in berating the black singer (her name is “Darlene Sweet”), G-men (J. Edgar Hoover gets a vocal cameo), Nixon, a dead Kennedy (almost certainly the one who’s name begins with “R,” but it’s not specified), and a flashback to a massacre in Vietnam. When Erivo’s Darlene character isn’t practicing one Brill Building or Motown hit after another, a jukebox is dropping 45s onto a platter — the soundtrack for assorted garish shotgun blasts.
What’s missing from Bad Times at the El Royale is a sense of urgency. Is this a story that needs to be told or a self-conscious and, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, labored exercise? Given that Goddard wrote and directed the hyperbolically derivative Cabin in the Woods and scripted such slick, secondhand genre pieces as Cloverfield and World War Z, it’s no surprise the movie feels synthetic.
Synthetic isn’t always bad, though. Goddard has affection for his characters, some of whose deaths are genuinely shocking. And the cast is a motley treat. Erivo (delightful in Steve McQueen’s upcoming Widows) holds herself in — sad and bitter at having to start over — but we can project all kinds of things on her. When she sings, her voice has its own authenticity. Most of her scenes are played with Jeff Bridges, who’s amusingly un-credible behind his priestly collar but with a poignant helplessness: Why is he here? Who is he? Dakota Johnson always seems to be enacting an internal drama before our eyes: Is she an actor or the child of stars who drifted into the profession and is nearly as uncomfortable around cinematographers as paparazzi? She parcels herself out in small amounts, but I grew to like her here. Likable, too, is Hamm, though he — like Pullman and Cailee Spaeny as a muddled hippie cultist — is high on the hog. Hemsworth is even higher. There’s something a little dull about him, but he brings it.
I saw Bad Times at the El Royale at a Brooklyn multiplex with real people, who were reasonably absorbed. Here’s what I overheard from two middle-aged men leaving the theater: “It started pretty slow but then…” “Yeah. I agree.” So do I. It started pretty slow but then. They seemed to think they’d gotten their money’s worth.
Will you? Maybe. I’m not sure. I know you want something definitive — like the good folks at Rotten Tomatoes, who sometimes ask me for clarification on whether a given review is “fresh” or “rotten.” When I say “frotten,” they don’t laugh, and I imagine it’s as frustrating for you, dear reader: I just invested 45 seconds in skimming this review. Judgment, please!
But sitting on the fence isn’t always a bad thing. You see the sun going down and the eyes in your head see the world spinning round.
True, at the multiplex the fence isn’t cheap. With tickets approaching 20 bucks and never mind the popcorn, a movie needs to be an event. Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t an event. But I was never too bored. Apart from a guy who took a call from someone who’d just spoken on his behalf to the IRS (I’m serious — the man was having a conversation about a tax audit while the movie was going on), the audience behaved itself. My Coke Zero kept its fizz. For the first time in weeks I didn’t think about sexual predators in high office or the hurricane that leveled Panama City, Florida, where I’d once spent a happy day and night en route from New Orleans, a city which also probably won’t be around much longer, along with parts of Queens and Brooklyn — maybe even Sheepshead Bay, where I was watching the movie. What I’m trying to say is that the view from the fence was fine. So, you know, fresh.