Writer-director Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale stalks across the screen much like his previous movie, the overrated The Cabin in the Woods, boldly deploying clichés while pretending to deconstruct them. It starts out with a burst of Tarantino-esque narrative energy and a retro-’60s look that suggests an Edward Hopper painting in blazing neon, simultaneously garish and beautiful thanks to production designer Martin Whist and cinematographer Seaums McGarvey. For the first 25 minutes, we think we’re in for something breathlessly exciting. But by the time Goddard gets to the last 25 minutes—after an hour-and-a-half in between—we just want him to wrap things up and let us go home.
Goddard opens with a prologue circa 1961: an unnamed character played by Nick Offerman checks into the El Royale, a trendy motel straddling the California-Nevada state line. He shifts the furniture, rolls back the carpet and stashes a satchel under the floorboards. No sooner does he get the room back in order than the door bursts open and he’s blown to bits by a shotgun. It’s the first of many murders that Goddard has in store, and the only one I can mention without spilling any beans.
Ten years later, the El Royale is no longer a busy place. One night a motley assortment of guests arrive, overwhelming the desk clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman), a closet junkie unaccustomed to more than one guest at a time. The newcomers are Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who looks like a grizzled frontier preacher in an old western movie; Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a backup singer en route to Reno and a solo career; Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a vacuum cleaner salesman with a Colonel Sanders accent; and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a sullen hippie who signs the El Royale’s register with “Fuck You” where it asks for her name. None of them, it turns out, are quite who they appear to be. One is an FBI agent, one a kidnapper, one a relative of the Offerman character in search of the money in that satchel and two are on the run from a Charles Manson-type psycho played by Chris Hemsworth, a villain added late to the mix. Even the motel itself is not what it seems, as the FBI agent learns by discovering the secret hallway where guests can be photographed through the two-way mirrors in the rooms.
Goddard throws plot twists at us with merry abandon, time-hopping to show scenes over and over from different perspectives. But the time-hopping is redundant and distends the running time, and the twists play less as logical developments than simply changing the subject. Goddard keeps us guessing for a while, but he relies on our patience; after the umpteenth reversal we just throw up our hands and lose interest, victims of Goddard’s impulsive narrative whiplash.
Besides, we’re still trying to figure out who shot Offerman.