Drew Goddard’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” is set at the El Royale hotel nestled on the border between California and Nevada. Guests can choose which state they’d like to stay in, though California costs more (because it’s California).
In 1969, seven main characters gather there. An eighth (Nick Offerman), seen some years earlier in a prologue, buries something in the floorboards of one room.
Needless to say, many of the characters are not what they seem, and shady things are afoot.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is like an Agatha Christie story or one of many movies that clumsily trailed after Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” in the 1990s.
Despite many strong attributes, it lacks the tightly-coiled surprise of Christie and the violent crackle of Tarantino.
The characters include smarmy traveling salesman Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), kind, dotty priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), and tired, struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo).
Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) appears, apparently having kidnapped a younger woman (Cailee Spaeny). A bit later, magnetic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) enters.
They check in with meek, emotionally scarred desk clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman, Bill’s son), seemingly running the place on his own.
In their rooms, they drop their guards. Sinister surprises follow, mainly in elaborate, chapter-headed flashbacks that provide origins for each character.
Writer-director Goddard is a fascinating talent, having cut his teeth working for polar opposites J.J. Abrams (“Alias,” “Lost”) and Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”).
Goddard wrote the clever sci-fi, found-footage hit “Cloverfield,” got an Oscar nomination for adapting “The Martian” and made his directorial debut with the excellent post-modern horror film “The Cabin in the Woods.”
“The Martian” had the main character’s playful, narrating video diary, and “The Cabin in the Woods” was aware of its genre’s staples, gleefully turning them sideways. In contrast, “Bad Times at the El Royale” isn’t ahead of the game.
While Tarantino starts his multi-character chamber pieces with teasing, building dialogue, Goddard starts this with a bang, and then slows it down. The movie never justifies its monolithic 141-minute length; its flashbacks feel like tripping blocks, stopping the story dead.
Weirdly, the typically commanding Hamm, Bridges and Hemsworth come across as ordinary. Even the instinctively funny Hemsworth — cast in the tired, simmering, sadistic torturer role and stalking around his captives saying things like “Well, well, well!” — can’t find the right tone.
The movie’s surprises are expected; these squeaky-clean folks are actually (gasp) criminals.
The exception is with singer Darlene. Bedrolls she drags to her room don’t hide dead bodies. They’re pinned to the walls so she can practice in a somewhat soundproof security. Erivo, a Tony-winner for “The Color Purple,” is astounding, carrying a wisdom and world-weariness the others can’t manage. For her singing sequences, Goddard cooks up a nifty audio trick that makes her songs echo and heartbreakingly mournful.
If only “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have been told from her point of view, or from that of desk clerk Miles, whose very late flashback shows an unrealized promise might have given the film shape and a pace.
Perhaps the movie’s flavor needed some enhancing: a “Royale” with some cheese.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Two and a half stars
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman
Written and directed by: Drew Goddard
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes