Six years ago writer/director Drew Goddard deconstructed the slasher movie genre with the whimsical and exhilarating “Cabin in the Woods.” A mash-up of horror and humour, of post-modern self-awareness and gruesome gags, it simultaneously adopted and challenged the conventions of the slasher genre. He returns to the big screen—his day job is writing, producing and directing TV shows like “Daredevil” and “The Good Place”—with “Bad Times at the El Royale,” an inversion of a 1990s broken timeline crime drama.
The El Royale is the kind of seedy hotel that dotted the highways and byways of 1960s America. Split down the middle by the California/Nevada border, it’s a perfect slice of mid-century kitsch, like the same guy who decked out Elvis’s rec room designed it. When we first lay eyes on it a shady character (Nick Offerman) with a bulging suitcase and a gun wrenches up the floorboards and hides a case of money before replacing the carpet and the furniture. It’s an act that establishes the El Royale as a home-away-from-home for transients and ne’er-do-wells and sets up much of the action to come.
As for the action to come, you’ll have to go see the film to find out what happens. I will tell you that the film takes place ten years after the suitcase was hidden in the hotel and begins with a disparate group of folks checking in well after the El Royale’s heyday. There’s slick talking vacuum cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), Reno-bound singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a priest with tired eyes and hippie chick Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All three pay front desk manager Miles (Lewis Pullman) the $8 deposit and take to their rooms.
Secrets are revealed about the guests and the hotel as an aura of menace clouds the sunny California/Nevada border. “We’re in a bit of a pickle,” says Father Flynn in what may be the understatement of the year.
Goddard takes his time setting up the narrative drive of “Bad Times at the El Royale.” He bobs and weaves, playing with time, slowly revealing the intricacies of the story. For the patient—it runs two hours and 21 minutes—it’s a heck of a ride but may prove too opaque for casual viewers. Large conspiracies are hinted at, secrets are kept and no one is really who they seem to be. For those willing to submit to the grimly funny and admittedly indulgent proceedings, it’s a Tarantino-esque web of intrigue and unexpected violence that plays both as a crime drama and a metaphor for the decay of 1960s idealism.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a good movie filled with bad people. It asks you to care about people who do terrible things and by the end, thanks to inventive storytelling and good performances—Erivo is s standout—you just might.