Like westerns, pirate adventures and gladiator flicks, the old school mystery-thriller has become a ghost town genre in today’s media market. Filmmaker Drew Goddard sets out to fix that in the crazy, twisty, more-than-meets-the-eye suspense noir “Bad Times at the El Royale,” a flawed but intriguing effort.
With its visually flashy retro set design and jukebox golden oldies soundtrack, the movie wants to carry us back to the golden age of guns, gangsters and gore. After a prologue that prepares us to have rugs pulled from beneath our feet whenever possible, the action begins in 1969 at the Lake Tahoe hotel of the title. A once-famous celebrities’ hideaway, the resort is now a collection of vacancies staffed alone by its young clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman), the meekest, most nervous hotel keeper since Alfred Hitchcock gave us Norman Bates.
The El Royale, bisected by the California/Nevada border, effectively occupies several realms of time and space, a limbo that becomes occupied by eight people who are very far from who they seem. Jumping across time and continents under a series of chapter headings, the film dares us to figure them out.
Leading the impressive cast is Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn, a man of the cloth whose knowledge of sin may come from felonious firsthand experience. He arrives at the deserted check-in desk alongside wary small-time singer Darlene Sweet (Tony-winning vocalist Cynthia Erivo, who is electrifying) and Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a dubious traveling salesman with an endless supply of Southern-fried patter. The crew of strangers becomes stranger still with the arrival of Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a hippie vamp with something shady in the trunk of her car. The El Royale becomes a full house when it’s visited by a weird cult and its Charles Manson-style ruler Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth in all his intrusive, unbuttoned glory).
It’s obvious that every sneaky one of them has something to hide. But their evasive conversations can’t dodge the one-way spy mirrors that expose their solo activities to a hidden peeping Tom’s corridor spanning their rooms. As one character puts it when the voyeur’s valley is discovered, the El Royale was built as “some kind of pervert hotel” with a leery back story of its own.
Goddard likes playing mind games with undervalued genres, making throwbacks that are hurled in a different direction. He dismantled horror movie conventions and reassembled them in cleverly bonkers fashion in his first film, 2012’s “The Cabin in the Woods.” That gem put five teenagers in a secluded lodge, then hit them with a barrage of deadly zombies and much, much more. Scary wackiness ensued.
Goddard takes a similar approach here, packing the movie with deceptions and surprises. Once again, the story is set in a strange patch of parallel reality, turning familiar suspense movie tropes and reference points into red herrings. Bad guys become temporary heroes and saints turn scoundrels in ways designed to leave other characters and the viewers equally flabbergasted.
This is bigger and broader than his debut film. It’s also carrying a heavier load of pitfalls. He co-authored the earlier movie with masterful trickster Joss Whedon. Here, going solo as director and screenwriter, he knits some of the various subplots together but often drops the thread. The film feels like a beach read that drags on too long but can’t be quickly paged through to the end.
Still, despite its abundant flaws — unconvincing plot, an elongated 140-minute length and a forced, inconsistent tone — it provides plenty of trashy surprises. Unhappy endings await for most of the cast, good tidings for just a few, but what’s really too bad is that Erivo won’t get a sequel, spinoff or origin story about the silver-throated songstress Darlene Sweet. She deserves it.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • @colincovert
Bad Times at the El Royale
★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity.