A mysterious group of strangers. An unusual location, filled with secrets. A flashback structure that reveals unexpected backstories for every major character. “Bad Times at the El Royale” plays a heck of a lot like the TV series “Lost,” and that’s probably not a coincidence: Writer-director Drew Goddard used to write for the show, and he’s filled this new crime thriller with many of the tricks that made “Lost” so great — and many the flaws that made it fall apart by the final season.
The El Royale Hotel is situated on the border of Nevada and California, and it’s a grand old place with lots of quirk and history. It’s the 1970s, and a priest named Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a salesman named Laramie (Jon Hamm), a singer named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo, “Widows”) and a drifter who signs the ledger as “F— You” (Dakota Johnson) are all checking in for the evening.
Goddard lets the opening of “Bad Times at the El Royale” run much like a stage play, with witty, conversational dialogue and lots and lots and lots of exposition. He loves his characters, and he clearly loves letting them talk. So it’s amusing to watch as the film undermines everything this introduction tells us about everybody. Each chapter of “Bad Times” focuses on a different characters and explains that they aren’t who they say they are, or what anybody else thinks of them.
Needless to say, they don’t all spend a quiet evening reading airplane novels and then going to sleep. “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a tale of intrigue, murder, kidnapping, blackmail and many other crimes that can’t be mentioned without spoiling the plot. (Chris Hemsworth is in the movie too, and saying any more than that is also a spoiler.) Half the fun of Goddard’s film is watching how he parcels new information out in visually intriguing and sometimes misleading ways.
The other half is watching the cast take a big juicy bite out of Goddard’s screenplay, which never met a page of dialogue it wasn’t afraid to double. Bridges plays a smiling man of God with dark secrets, and he has a sad story to reveal to Erivo, as a singer afraid of never quite making it, who gets to sing beautifully throughout the entire film. Johnson isn’t the vicious criminal she first appears to be, and the hotel’s sole employee, Miles (Lewis Pullman, “Battle of the Sexes”), is eager to please, eager to confess, and afraid of something truly scarring.
“Bad Times” may not be Goddard’s directorial debut — that would be the spectacular horror satire “The Cabin in the Woods” — but this is the work of an artist who acts like he’s still trying to prove himself. It’s a tide pool of a motion picture, filled with every kind of colorful life Goddard could think of, as though each denizen of the El Royale just stepped out of a completely different movie, and they all came crashing together over the course of an evening. There isn’t a single shot in the movie, no line of dialogue, that hasn’t been amplified for maximum impact.
It’s spectacularly photographed (by Seamus McGarvey, “The Greatest Showman”), every character is rich, and the soundtrack is spectacular. “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a heck of a lot of fun to watch, but it runs through its bag of tricks too soon. There aren’t enough flashbacks to play consistently through the entire film, so Goddard eventually has to settle down and let only one of the subplots take over the whole show when the final act rolls around.
And like “Lost,” the mysteries are arguably more appealing than the answers, and there’s a decent chance that the storyline Goddard thinks was the most interesting isn’t actually the one that audience members will have focused on.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is vibrant motion picture, in a way few films are nowadays. One might even call it indulgent, although “decadent” is probably more accurate. It’s a giant of declaration of love for these characters and every genre they inhabit, warts and all. And although it’s long, melodramatic and messy — there’s one character who’s clearly important, and about whom the movie completely forgets about — it’s nevertheless kind of rapturous to visit. For a while.