In 1969, a once famed Lake Tahoe resort straddles the California Nevada border, its glamour gone along with its gambling license. Four strangers all arrive on the same evening and Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and feminist flower child Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) all have secrets ensuring "Bad Times at the El Royale."
It has been six years since writer/director Drew Goddard's last film, "The Cabin in the Woods," and he's up to pretty much the same tricks - misdirection, secret surveillance and cross sectional viewing. He's assembled a strong cast where the lesser known actors make the strongest impressions, but his screenplay leans too heavily on coincidence, multiple nefarious back stories converging in a free-for-all climax. There is little to be said about any of them that wouldn't be classified as spoilers, but this type of setup has been used before to better effect (see James Mangold's "Identity").
The film is split into chapters referencing various rooms in the old resort, where we begin to learn just what each of these characters are up to. One of them is undercover and discovers a locked interior corridor where all the occupied rooms can be viewed via two way mirrors, a film camera attesting to its purpose, general manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) seen passed out in a maintenance room with a needle in his arm. In one room, a character has dragged a young woman (Cailee Spaeny) out of a car trunk to be tied up and held hostage. In another, floor boards are being pulled up. The third appears to be exactly what they'd said they were. One's back story includes the charismatic Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), who eventually arrives along with stormy weather. Various televisions are reporting a 'Malibu Massacre,' the horrific murder of a dentist and his wife. Note the year this is all going down.
The El Royale itself is a cool character, at least in its common spaces (for a resort once featuring Rat Pack like stars, its rooms are rather dreary). It features a jukebox loaded with Isley Brothers and the Supremes, vintage vending machines and a fire stacked like a teepee, just like the one in the most disturbing flashback. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey ("The Greatest Showman") frames certain characters with light flaring over their right shoulders, a connective visual clue. Editor Lisa Lassek achieves a couple of shocking moments with her crack Cutting, yet allows some scenes to drag on and on (the film runs an indulgent 140 minutes). A climax featuring cults, kidnapping, a blackmail film, a bank robbery, familial betrayal, religious rites, the Vietnam War and a new twist on Russian roulette could be said to be overstuffed. The film's coda doesn't sit well, the El Royale's two survivors an unlikely pairing given an earlier episode of violence, sympathy sought for the perpetrator with a medical condition convenient to the plot. "Bad Times at the El Royale" is a decent enough entertainment, but it feels like it's been assembled lifting pieces of way too many other movies.
Robin did not see this film.
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