Directed by Drew Goddard
Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth
Bad Times at the El Royale opens with an unnamed traveler (an unrecognizable Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation) entering a nondescript motel room on a rainy night, and then tearing up the flooring to bury a satchel. An interminable amount of time then goes by as this anonymous man fidgets, turns on the radio, sits on a chair, and looks out the window, obviously waiting for someone. Finally, there is a knock on the door. The man opens it, and is promptly blown to smithereens by a shotgun blast, just as the camera is splattered by his blood and guts. That extended opening is a perfect encapsulation of the movie that follows it: perplexing, violent, with a touch of the self-referential…and a bit of a slog.
Ten years pass, and the titular motel complex where the opening homicide took place has lost its gambling license, becoming an artifact of ‘50s Rat Pack excess. Into the shell of the El Royale’s grandeur stroll a priest (Jeff Bridges), a backup singer (the British stage actress Cynthia Erivo, whose preternatural stillness is broken only when she sings classics like “This Old Heart of Mine”, “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Unchained Melody” in a sweet, soulful voice), a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), and a surly hippie in fringes and bell bottoms (Dakota Johnson). All harbor secrets and fraught backstories. And that’s not counting the tremulous manager (Lewis Pullman) who’s too busy shooting up in a back room to check them in. He is lucid enough, though, to note the red line that bisects the El Royale: on one side is California, with warmth, sunshine and a liquor license to justify the dollar mark-up in its rooms; and on the other side is Nevada, which holds “hope and opportunity.”
Writer-director Drew Goddard is no stranger to mind games (Lost) or self-referential genre deconstruction (Cabin in the Woods). But the big question in Bad Times at El Royale is: What exactly is he deconstructing? Or is he commenting on 1969 Nixon-era America, on the rise of the counterculture, on the late-J. Edgar Hoover-era FBI, on casual racism and misogyny? At 140 minutes, the auteur crams too many subplots and takes too damn long to decide. The murk isn’t illuminated by the entrance at the 100-minute mark of the slitheringly sexy Chris Hemsworth (admirably going for broke in his unbuttoned shirt and elongated torso) as a Charles Manson-like figure, nor by a jaw-dropping plot contrivance at the climax. Maybe Bad Times at the El Royale is both a deconstruction and a commentary, maybe it is neither. Only Goddard, drowning in his own cleverness, can tell for sure.