'Bad Times at the El Royale' ★★
Drew Goddard, the screenwriter-turned-director whose feature debut was the meta-horror film “A Cabin in the Woods,” has laid another movie trap.
This time, in the pulpy but artificial thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale,” it's a motel. And as anyone who has ever watched a movie knows, bad things do indeed tend to happen in motels. Just ask Marion Crane or Llewelyn Moss.
The El Royale is Goddard's hermetically sealed site this time. It's a once-swanky, now-kitschy Lake Tahoe lodge – a blare of neon amid the pines – that straddles the state line. Half the motel lies in Nevada, half in California, and a red line of demarcation runs right through the middle. Rooms in California are $1 cheaper, owing to the fact that that's the side with the bar.
Goddard's real-life inspiration was the similarly arranged Cal Neva, which in the '60s was a favored hangout of the Rat Pack, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and an assortment of mobsters. When Frank Sinatra bought it, he built secret tunnels between bungalows. It was a notorious den of salaciousness and disrepute. Monroe spent her last weekend there.
Those heydays are long gone in “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Set in 1969 as Nixon is taking office, the El Royale has lost its gaming license and when guests beginning arriving, they find a desolate lobby. It takes an eternity to arouse the jumpy manager (Lewis Pullman).
That's enough time for us to get lengthy introductions to our cast of travelers. There's a former bank robber posing as a priest from Indiana, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); a Motown singer trying to go solo, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo); an FBI man posing as a vacuum salesman from Mississippi (Jon Hamm); and a pair of sisters on the run: Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and Ruth (Cailee Spaeny). Turning up later will be Chris Hemsworth as a Charles Manson-like guru.
The production design (by Martin Whist) is stellar, the atmosphere (a rainy night) is dense and the cast terrific. So why is “Bad Times at the El Royale” kind of a slog? Goddard's film looks terrific and has all of the – as Hamm's character would say with exaggerated Southern flare – “accoutrements” of an intoxicating slow-burn thriller, but none of the payoff.
But it's continually tantalizing that something may be below the surface here beyond a belated Tarantino knockoff. Bridges naturally lends a gravitas to the movie's mysteries. Johnson, armed with a shotgun, seems poised to take over the film. When Hamm's agent finds dozens of surveillance devices and uncovers the motel's hidden tunnels, you'd swear a larger conspiracy is about to be revealed. And whenever Erivo is on screen, the film suddenly quivers with potential; her character's climactic soliloquy is a high point that the film doesn't quite earn.
Instead, as in “A Cabin in the Woods,” Goddard has assembled genre archetypes on a self-consciously movie set location for an elaborate morality test. This time, though, he doesn't have any tricks up his sleeve beyond the late-arriving Hemsworth. (Hunky as he is, Hemsworth is no match for Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford's cleverer third act in the more audaciously postmodern “Cabin in the Woods.”)
Goddard (who adapted “The Martian” and penned numerous “Lost” episodes) should be applauded for his patience in letting the story unfold so leisurely. (The film runs 140 minutes.) But just as in Tarantino's similarly styled “The Hateful Eight,” slowness doesn't automatically make suspense.
For such a specifically set movie, the motel's dark past goes curiously unexamined. Heightened as Goddard's movie is, “Bad Times at the El Royale” may be the unusual Hollywood thriller to not live up to the real-life drama of its pseudo setting. Like its motel, “El Royale” is just a front.