SPOILER ALERT: Those responsible for “Bad Times at the El Royale” have gone to great lengths to hide its secrets. While this review attempts to respect the film’s key twists, it may be better read after you’ve seen the movie.
A line runs right through the middle of Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Resort & Casino, splitting the swimming pool between two states: Step into the shallow end on the California side, and the water gets progressively deeper as you cross over into Nevada. A tangled nest of mysteries and rumors in its own right, the Cal Neva was clearly the inspiration for the retro-kitsch hotel where “Bad Times at the El Royale” goes down, and though none of the film’s five (give or take) guests ever finds time to visit the pool — they’re too busy slapping, shooting, and spying on one another for that — it’s pretty fair to say they’re all in over their heads.
That’s also true for writer-director Drew Goddard, a key contributor to the cult-beloved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the quasi-occult “Lost.” Groundbreaking as those shows may have been, his ambitions outstrip his abilities this time around. Goddard’s second feature arrives shrouded in secrecy, as if to preserve some great surprise the knowledge of which will ruin the experience for audiences (in that respect, read on at your own risk). The biggest surprise — a shocker, really, given what fans have come to expect from Goddard six years after his deranged big-screen debut, “The Cabin in the Woods” — is that “Bad Times” isn’t very good.
It’s stylish, yes, and plenty atmospheric — a cocktail that’s equal parts 1930s pulp fiction, ’40s film noir, and ’60s Technicolor, plus a splash of Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 “The Killing” — with a phenomenal soul-music soundtrack and mesmerizing performances across the board from an all-aces cast. But at two hours and 21 minutes, this 1969-set period thriller is taxingly slow and almost oppressively self-indulgent, constantly backtracking and replaying already-drawn-out scenes from multiple perspectives. And though it hints at some larger conspiracy (involving those who own the hotel and some of its more famous, never-seen guests), the film’s efficacy relies a bit too heavily on the audience’s imagination — which implies that our ideas are better than the filmmaker’s, a notion that may very well be true.
Apparently, Goddard began with the idea of the hotel as character, conjuring a once-swanky, Rat Pack-style getaway in decline, and then populated the evocative location with individuals inspired by classic crime novels: Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), the salesman with the cheap suit and brilliantined hair whose sample case hides secrets; Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), the prickly, rifle-toting hippie chick on the run from someone evil; Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), whose Irish priest persona masks a criminal past; and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a far-from-defenseless single lady en route to Reno, trading in her career as a Supremes-y backup singer for a solo gig.
These four, along with a bonus guest (Cailee Spaeny) who never bothered to sign the ledger, have all independently arrived at the El Royale for what the title has informed us will not be their happiest hotel stay. At first, audiences don’t know whether the characters have been invited here by some dastardly mastermind or merely invented by the less cunning mind of a macabre screenwriter. You decide. Playing mild-mannered host to this colorful ensemble is likeably awkward hotel manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who is nowhere to be found when the customers begin arriving, and will be last to share his own “appearances can be deceiving” backstory.
After setting the tone for slow-burn intrigue and spontaneous, camera-splattering violence with a virtually wordless opening prologue that “Bad Times” will subsequently find impossible to top (and will never satisfactorily explain), Goddard expands his focus from a single room, where some unspecified loot lies hidden beneath the floorboards, to the hotel itself. Like the Cal Neva, this one sports a clear line running through the middle of the lobby, which, by virtue of being nearly deserted, feels more like a movie set than a once-hopping recreational destination.
Sweet and Father Flynn arrive at roughly the same time, only to find Sullivan waiting in the gorgeously art-directed lobby — a crimson-and-gold mid-century paradise, complete with mod fixtures and automat-style dining nook — where the smooth-talking salesman kicks off the charade of establishing flimsy cover stories that Goddard will later take great pleasure in overturning. (As the ensemble’s most ostentatious member, Hamm sports an affected Southern accent that’s unconvincing enough to make you wonder if it’s some kind of ruse.) When Summerspring shows up, she doesn’t even bother with an alias, deflecting anything vaguely resembling a personal question.
No one is quite who he or she appears to be, although Goddard mistakes our natural curiosity about who these people really are for suspense, abusing how long we must wait for twists that aren’t as clever as he thinks. He can get away with burning time for a while, reveling in the sheer thrill of the setup and filling the air with small talk that, in the hands of a more eloquent screenwriter, would be its own reward. But sooner or later, he’ll have to make good on all that anticipation, and “Bad Times” essentially finds him bluffing behind a weak hand. Maybe it’s because Goddard has dabbled in supernatural thrillers before that this one seems so blandly conventional by comparison. Or perhaps it’s that the real Cal Neva has such a rich history, every bit as scandalous as anything the movie serves up: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and their mob buddies bought the joint in 1960, adding an elaborate tunnel system, and conspiracy theorists believe Marilyn Monroe may have died there, while others claim it was a love nest for politicians such as JFK.
Goddard plays with this mythology in interesting but unresolved ways, as when Sullivan checks into the honeymoon suite and begins inspecting the room for surveillance devices, finding more bugs than he would in a flophouse. And then there’s the matter of the room’s one-way mirror, behind which runs a secret corridor. By the look of things, production designer Martin Whist crafted the 10,000-square-foot building on a massive soundstage, allowing Seamus McGarvey’s camera to track creepily from the sunnier California end to shady Nevada, where the first of the murders takes place. That’s also where Erivo, a Tony winner for “The Color Purple,” who steals the show here and in the upcoming “Widows,” has her first chance to sing.
In essence, Goddard’s blueprint for “Bad Times at the El Royale” is the inverse of his iceberg-style concept for “The Cabin in the Woods,” where a simple facade masked an extensive and horrifying universe. Here, the hotel is by far the showier setting, and virtually everything we witness of its inner workings serves to diminish the scope of whatever complicated shenanigans might have been at play in the venue’s past.
That leaves Goddard to introduce another character relatively late in the game: Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who looks like the ultimate bad-taste Halloween costume — call it “sexy Charles Manson.” He’s a cult leader with evil beard and chiseled abs whose mad ramblings would be easier to follow if he’d just button up his shirt. It’s a fun bit of against-type casting for Hemsworth, although the ensuing “Helter Skelter” showdown (including a sadistic roulette game that finally generates some suspense) demonstrates just one more way in which “Bad Times” feels like a poor imitation of Quentin Tarantino, who has his own Manson movie in the works.
Tarantino set the template for this kind of self-aware homage a quarter-century ago with “Pulp Fiction” — a title that could just as easily have applied to Goddard’s all-too-familiar tribute to crime-novel archetypes and the films that immortalized them. The contributions of both cast and crew make “Bad Times” a worthwhile watch, even if for most, the script’s payoff isn’t enough to justify the pacing problems. Goddard may have had the Cal Neva in mind when imagining the El Royale, but as the story drags on, he’ll have you thinking of another hotel entirely: “Relax,” as the song goes. “We are programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”