Here’s the thing about Bad Times at the El Royale: When it’s good, it’s very, very good — and when it’s bad, this retro whatsit is a whole lot of awful. Punishingly long at 2 hours and 21 minutes, the movie is still crammed with enough depraved delights to make you consider checking in. Drew Goddard, whose 2012 directing debut with The Cabin in the Woods made fanboys of horror enthusiasts, is up to his old tricks: trap some shady types in a confined space. Then watch them squirm.
Set in 1969, the film has an ace in the hole in its title character. The El Royale, art directed to the nth degree of Rat Pack glitz by Martin Whist, is a hotel set between two states: California on the shallow side of the pool and Nevada on the deep end. The place has seen better days, but its vibe of illicit sex and gangster violence is still strong. It’s as if the Overlook in The Shining had a casino that lost its license.
Goddard, who wrote the script, had the good sense to hire a cast you’d follow anywhere. Jon Hamm is all kinds of slick as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, a hospitality salesman with his eye on a certain room; if only he could find someone at the desk. Jeff Bridges is Daniel Flynn, a priest with a taste for the hard stuff, and Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet, a backup singer hoping for a solo gig in Reno. Add Dakota Johnson as the rifle-toting Emily Summerspring, whose name is enough to make you suspicious, and it won’t be long till you realize that no one is telling the truth. When the manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who looks mild mannered but maybe isn’t, finally does show up, he’s ready to assign rooms to his guests. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey casts a neon glow on each of these characters that suggests hidden depths that never materialize.
You might want to look out for secret corridors, one-way mirrors, a cache of stolen loot and an out-of-nowhere appearance by Chris Hemsworth late in the game as a cult leader who never learned to button his shirt. The Australian actor’s comic willingness to go for broke, a quality that served him and us so well in Thor: Ragnarok and Ghostbusters, hasn’t deserted him. But it’s the spectacular Erivo, a Tony winner for The Color Purple, who takes the acting honors, throwing in a few delicious songs (“You Can’t Hurry Love,” “This Old Heart of Mine”) in between demonstrations of, well … they won’t allow us to tell. What can be said is that Bad Times at the El Royale could have been creepier, wittier, sharper in its construction and packed with bombshell revelations that would have made its payoff actually pay off.