Drew Goddard is an impressive filmmaker. His screenplay for 2015’s “The Martian” netted him an Oscar nomination in 2015, and his direction of “The Cabin in the Woods” was resoundingly acclaimed, as was his revisionist horror script for the 2012 sleeper. Much of his new film “Bad Times at the El Royale” is splendid as well. His story of seven people congregating at a remote motel in the middle of nowhere is set up to be a quirky, character-driven mystery, promising twists, laughs, and violence. And for 60 minutes or so, it delivers them. Unfortunately, the film clocks in at 2 hours and 21 minutes, a stretch way too long for pulp like this. The story starts to drag and by the time it finally wraps up, the film has worn out its welcome.
It’s such a shame because Goddard’s narrative starts off with a bang, literally and figuratively. In 1959, a shady man named Felix (Nick Offerman) checks into a room at the El Royale motel in Lake Tahoe intent on hiding a bag of money. He painstakingly rolls up the carpet and removes the floorboards, and once the bag is tucked neatly away underground, he puts the room back together again. The next day, Felix meets up with a business associate at the motel and he’s betrayed when the visitor shoots him in the back. Yet, the murderer never finds the money he was after.
A decade later, in the late 1960’s, another group of suspect types show up at the off-the-beaten-path motel. Salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) has charm to spare but he’ssuspiciously insistent on claiming the honeymoon suite as his room. Crusty priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) acts more like a drunken old sot than a man of God. Even the lovely lounge singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is all nervous gestures and fearful stares. What secrets are they harboring? The motel’s sole employee Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) acts odd too, coming off far cagier than a service industry host ever should.
When hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) arrives, she turns out to be the most troubled and devious of them all. Mean, dressed in black, and hiding behind giant sunglasses, the femme fatale is such a crank she signs the register, “F**k you.”
What brings all these scoundrels to this relic of a motel, and how will all these scorpions get along in the box? Not well. We in the audience edge forward in our seats, anxiously waiting for them to start stinging each other.
Soon enough, the first ruse is dropped. Sullivan is revealed to be an FBI agent working undercover, searching for something hidden at the hotel under order from Bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover. The Fed discovers a secret hallway behind the rooms where one-way mirrors are set up for voyeuristic spying on all the motel’s guests. There’s even a 16 mm camera on a tripod. The El Royale turns out to be just as devious as its clientele.
While spying on the various rooms, Sullivan discovers that Emily has a young woman named Ruth (Cailee Spaeny) bound and gagged in her room. As he starts to intervene, gunfire occurs, and the movie is off to the races. But then Goddard starts interrupting his story over and over again with lengthy flashbacks that bring the film’s pacing to a screeching halt each time. The backstories of the characters start eating up gobs of screen time and slowly the momentum that the thriller was building dies. What started out as a crackling thriller starts to become a numbing exercise in narrative excess.
Darlene’s flashback dramatizes her clash with a sexist manager, but it seems designed mostly to show off Erivo’s impressive pipes. The Tony-winning actress is a great singer, but Goddard indulges her talent far too frequently throughout the film. Meanwhile, Emily and Ruth’s backstory finds them under the spell of a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a cross between a Beach Boy and Charles Manson. Unfortunately, it goes on and on, and to make matters worse, Billy is a cinematic cliché, a cult leader driven by narcissism and sexual deviancy. In Hollywood, there’s never any other kind.
Long passages of time that should be devoted to tightening the screws and ratcheting up the tension between the guests are instead frittered away on details that drag down the main story. Who cares about the sandwiches and pies in the lobby? Why does everyone take so long to do anything in the rain-soaked parking lot? And do we really need to hear all those songs on the jukebox, or watch Darlene belt out ditty after ditty in her motel room? Goddard managed to make human excrement potatoes riveting in “The Martian,” but here he lets scenes play out endlessly, watching characters walk back and forth, take forever to pour drinks, dig up floorboards, etc. Tick tock, tick tock…
Bridges is always fun to watch, even though Goddard lets him indulge in his old coot act a bit too much here. Hamm makes for a blustery G-man, but he’s out of the picture far too soon. And Hemsworth is good at playing bad, even if it’s stock villain schtick. The characters should be the whole story at the El Royale, driving the action and keeping us on edge, but while Goddard’s plot contains a number of decent twists, the characters act far too predictably. Most shockingly, the filmmaker has written nothing for Johnson to play. Her performance begins and ends with glowering. And why is Goddard so stingy in naming the celebrity on that notorious 16 mm sex film that figures so strongly in the plot? Is he pulling punches or just being coy?
“Bad Times at the El Royale” has moments that invite comparison to the likes of Elmore Leonard, Agatha Christie, and Jack Thompson. Goddard has a flair for finding the comedy and pathos equally in criminal characters, but he fails to deepen them as much as he should as thefilm drags on. By the time Billy Lee is spinning the roulette wheel in the motel’s lobby to determine whom he’ll shoot, you’ll be wishing he was playing a faster game like 21. All in all, these aren’t bad times, but the good times are killed by taking way too much time in the telling.
View the trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale below: