Drew Goddard likes frames.
The writer/director of “Bad Times at the El Royale” likes filming people looking at things through windows or doors. He likes seeing them horrified or aroused or intrigued by what they see, total voyeur style.
He likes recombinant stories, thematic pastiches from multiple sources.
His first feature, "Cabin in the Woods," co-written with Joss Whedon, was a riff on the horror genre in general and the vacuity of “torture porn” in particular, full of references to tropes and authors that either delighted or annoyed serious horror nerds.
Both of these traits are all over the place in his second feature, the entertaining-if-overlong “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Feast upon an entire wall of one-way mirrors while you play spot-the-influence! Dude remains on-brand, even if his brand is nipping here and there from others. (This is not a knock.)
The start is simple enough: A fellow (Nick Offerman, but you have to look closely) checks into a motel. He pulls up some floorboards and buries a bag. He replaces the floorboards. A knock at the door, someone he knows.
Then, a shotgun blast. Bye, Nick.
It is now 10 years later (1969, apparently, but the movie plays a bit loose with this). On your proverbial dark and stormy night, seven strangers, each with a bit of a secret and different reasons for being there, show up at the El Royale hotel. The El Royale has seen better days. Once, it was a classy joint, probably with mob ties. Now, it's a rundown road stop directly on the line between Nevada and California, a decent allegory for each character’s divided nature.
There’s Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a stereotypically boozy priest, and Darlene Sweet (Broadway star Cynthia Erivo and her wonderful voice), a singer whose career is in flux.
There’s Seymour "Laramie" Sullivan (John Hamm, perhaps doomed to wear period clothes forever), a vacuum cleaner salesman who is clearly not a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the young bellhop who looks very surprised indeed to see Flynn walk into the place.
There’s Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Ruth (Cailee Spaeny) Summerspring, two sisters who have had a very interesting previous few months.
And then there’s Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a charismatic cult leader with far, far too little body hair to be a sex god in 1969.
So, remember the late 1990s and early 2000s, when multiplexes were positively flooded with Tarantino rip-offs? (“Kiss of Death,” we will never forget you.)
From the period color and style to the title cards breaking up set pieces to Erivo singing a mess of ‘60’s R&B to plenty of time jumps to the fact that Goddard doesn't actually snap, “El Royale” will make you think Clinton is still in office.
There are also shouts-out to Coppola’s “The Conversation” and Scorsese’s “Casino;” even James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid” gets a nod when one character looks at an ancient reel of film and says of someone famous filmed in a compromising position, “Is that who I think it is?”
Plots lock up with each other like gear-teeth, sometimes a little too slowly — Goddard takes his very sweet time with his reveals, and the chatter struggles to entertain while he meanders.
Like a lot of directors making their second or third feature, Goddard seems to want to make a movie about Everything: crime, guilt, the FBI, music, luck, cults, the death of the 1960s, government and Dakota Fanning with a shotgun.
And it’s a decent cast, but Bridges acts rings around his peers without seeming to break a sweat. His Father Flynn seems like a man who has seen it all, is aware of exactly what is at stake, what he wants and what he has to do to get it.
Erivo also nails it with a bone-deep weariness that speaks to a career built on trying to please people who couldn’t care less about her. No wonder the chemistry, none of it romantic, is so strong between her and Bridges.
Hemsworth, unfortunately, is the oddest fit. Of course, the guy looks amazing, and his semi-nude performance is reason alone to go if “semi-nude Chris Hemsworth” is your thing, but his character changes the dynamic so severely the film nearly derails. Part Jim Morrison, part Charles Manson, part hairless Jesus, Hemsworth’s Billy Lee dominates the third act without really deserving the slot.
“El Royale” is a nostalgia trip on several fronts, but anyone looking for anything deeper than that, well, you might have better luck with the slot machines.