Much as he did with The Cabin in the Woods, writer-director Drew Goddard (The Martian) has taken a hoary old premise and re-invigorated it with deft plot twists (often delivered with shocking, sudden violence), black comedy, and genre satire. Bad Times at the El Royale plays like a long-lost Agatha Christie potboiler by way of Quentin Tarantino.
The short of it: The lives of several individuals, each with a dark secret and/or hidden agenda, collide circa 1969, during a fateful evening at the titular hotel — a divey Lake Tahoe-area lodge whose gimmick is that it straddles the California-Nevada state line.
Once a Rat Pack hangout, it’s now more of a rat-trap and at least one stolen towel away from going out of business. We’re just as surprised as mild-mannered desk clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman) is when four people show up within minutes of each other seeking a room: douchebag traveling salesman Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), absent-minded priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo), and acerbic drifter Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson).
Cult leader Billy Lee (a gloriously hammy Chris Hemsworth) and Emily’s wayward sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), eventually come into play as well — on a dark and stormy night, no less — but to say more would be a trip into spoiler territory. Let’s just say Goddard is adept at setting up viewer expectations just enough to thoroughly undermine them later.
Bridges, Hamm, and Hemsworth deliver their usual solid performances, with Bridges especially anchoring the film. However, it’s the new faces who stand out the most — especially Broadway star Erivo, who gives the story much-needed heart and delivers a short but powerful monologue in the final act; and Pullman, who takes the unexpectedly wide range required for his character and runs with it.
Goddard spends much of the indulgent 140-minute running time peeling back layers of plot and character motivation in intricate doses of red herrings, flashbacks, and POV shifts. Be forewarned, there’s no mind-blowing revelation at the center; it’s all about the build-up to an inevitable, bloody collision of plot lines, and we can’t help but watch.