'Bad Times at the El Royale': Film Review

Alluring ingredients, but where's the alchemy?

Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson and Jon Hamm are among the ragtag travelers whose paths cross at a strange motel in Drew Goddard's period thriller.

A priest, a salesman and a backup singer walk into an empty motel lobby. It might be a setup for a joke or a bloodbath, or a koan to meditate on. In the opening moments of Drew Goddard's vibrantly imagined feature, it's hard to tell which it will be. That kind of narrative confusion can be tantalizing, but somehow Bad Times at the El Royale, with its starry cast, dazzling design and handsome cinematography, is more of a slog than it has any right to be, the artifice turned up so high that it overwhelms the story instead of igniting it.

Writer-producer Goddard brings his notable experience with metaphysical mind-fucks (The Good Place, Lost) and superhero sagas (Daredevil) to this story of a motley collection of guests at a ghostly Lake Tahoe lodge in 1969. With its unbounded affection for vintage pop culture, the movie has a two-dimensional comic-book vibe that will click with fans of that genre (it bows at the Fantastic Fest two weeks before its wide release). Others, drawn by the enticing combo of actors, will likely be let down by the overlong proceedings as Goddard, directing his second film (after The Cabin in the Woods), struggles to fit together the lustrous mosaic pieces of his dark motor-court fantasy.

The setting earns top billing, with Martin Whist's ace production design bringing the title establishment to vividly faded life. A hallucinatory concoction of wood and stone, surrounded by towering pines, the El Royale naturally brings to mind the Great Northern Hotel of Twin Peaks — and the fact that one character turns out to be an FBI agent amplifies the resonance. But, Lynchian shadings notwithstanding, Goddard (whose credits include the screenplay for The Martian) is interested in down-to-earth thriller tropes, not otherworldly dreamscapes or free-floating evil. He sets the establishment-vs.-counterculture scene, sometimes with a light flourish and sometimes with heavy-handed melodrama: This is the America of Vietnam, J. Edgar Hoover, and a newly elected President Nixon, seen fleetingly on a TV screen in the lobby of the El Royale.

A year after losing its gambling license, the former Rat Pack hotspot is a moribund artifact. It takes a while to rouse the young, nervous manager, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), from the back room where he self-medicates. The motel's gimmicky claim to fame is the precise and elaborate way it straddles the California-Nevada border. Guests choose which state they'll stay in, and those on the Nevada side need only cross the lobby if they want a drink.

For a variety of reasons, the movie's arriving guests couldn't care less about the place's storied history. Clad in the exuberantly heightened yet lived-in creations of costume designer Danny Glicker, most of the characters are not what they seem. The first two to meet are Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a backup singer determined to take the spotlight and make it on her own terms. Their back-and-forth is meant to be the emotional spine of the drama, but like everything else here, the relationship shines in moments without delivering the intended payoff.

The bright, compelling moments for Flynn and Darlene include wary confessions and negotiations over pie and whiskey and, later, in a car on a rain-drenched night, where DP Seamus McGarvey works wonders with the motel's reflected neon. Throughout the film, he lovingly lights and frames the actors' faces, lending their roles a power that the screenplay can't match.

Goddard's playfulness with names continues with the grandiose Laramie Seymour Sullivan, Jon Hamm's gregarious Southern vacuum-cleaner salesman, who has a predilection for the word "accoutrements" and an eye on the honeymoon suite. Laramie has no sympathy for Emily Summerspring, a shotgun-toting toughie in West Coast hippie threads, especially after he discovers that she's an apparent kidnapper. Dakota Johnson inhabits the role with her ineffable cool, and the movie keeps us guessing, at least for a little while, whether Emily is criminal or savior. The person she's abducted is her younger sister (Cailee Spaeny). In their rearview mirror and getting closer is the cult leader Billy Lee, all toxic charisma, electric and ghastly in Chris Hemsworth’s slithery-hipped portrayal.

For creepy goings-on at the other end of the social spectrum — not pagan but sanctioned by business or government interests — Goddard gives us the El Royale's surveillance system, which apparently has taken a toll on Miles, who's consumed by secrets and a burning need to confess to the priest. Calling to mind Gay Talese's The Voyeur’s Motel, the El Royale's spying setup involves a dark hallway filled with one-way mirrors. Goddard and McGarvey use the frames-within-frames to eerie effect; these images are the closest the movie gets to the territory of the subconscious and dreams.

All of this is less intricately plotted than it pretends to be, and certainly less involving than it wants to be, however ominous the chords of Michael Giacchino's score. And however delectable the soul, R&B and rock 'n' roll gems that fill the soundtrack, several of them sung with heart by Erivo's Darlene, these musical interludes begin to feel like a crutch for Goddard, much like each "isn't this hip" celebratory glimpse of the motel's jukebox-altar and its fetishized vinyl platters dropping into place. 

After collecting the dramatis personae, the story interweaves flashbacks and doubles back a few times to replay present-day events from different perspectives, not adding much in the process. Still, the cast digs in, finding nuance within the screenplay's broad strokes, the finest turns belonging to Erivo and Bridges. As the priest whose connection to the prologue (itself a study in the drab depths of brown furnishings) is evident from the get-go, Bridges is gruff and vulnerable. It's a familiar mode for him, but one that he makes breathe. Erivo, in her big-screen debut (with Widows soon to follow), is a marvel of stillness, whether she's singing or staring down the latest in a long line of entitled men. The instant when Darlene pulls off her showbiz wig provides the movie's only unforced emotional punch.

When all is said and done, there's nothing to hold onto in this tale of paranoia and dark doings. It's great to look at, nearly giddy with pop-culture love, and its particulars are intriguing. But those pieces — by turns weird, soulful and exhilarating — merely accumulate, when they should be generating magic.

Production company: 20th Century Fox
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman
Director-screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Producers: Jeremy Latcham, Drew Goddard
Executive producer: Mary McLaglen
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Martin Whist
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Lisa Lassek
Composer: Michael Giacchino
New recordings producer: Harvey Mason Jr.
Casting director: Carmen Cuba

Rated R, 141 minutes