Drew Goddard likes to watch. As he made clear in his sly and self-reflexive 2012 debut “The Cabin in the Woods,” he likes to place his characters in a hall of mirrors that only he can see clearly, and he likes to make his audiences to shudder at their own reflections in the glass.
Of the many things his rollicking second feature has in common with his previous one, the most fundamental is that both films take a genre that’s grown painfully stale, step back until we’re looking at it from a god’s-eye view, and then — however damning it might be — force us reckon with what we love about them. With “The Cabin in the Woods,” Goddard deconstructed horror tropes from the inside out in order to explore how slashers and monster movies satiate the collective bloodlust that we bring into the theater. And with the clever, patient, and almost genuinely moving “Bad Times at the El Royale,” he vivisects post-Tarantino crime sagas in order to explore how these stories allow us to look through the heavy veil of morality that tends to fall over our eyes in the clear light of day.
Walking into the theater for “Bad Times at the El Royale,” it’s obvious from the pulpy title alone that you’re about to spend a long night with a sordid bunch of low-lifes, all of whom want to tease out a little sympathy for the devil. The fun of Goddard’s fiendishly unpredictable new film — a piece of major studio entertainment so patient and artful that it might as well be a time machine back to the mid-’90s — is that it compels you to give the devil the benefit of the doubt. Not only that, it lets you in on the trick until you stop asking if you should be forgiving these characters, and start questioning why you’re so eager to try.
It begins, as it must, with a premise so rote that it’s tempting to write the whole thing off. Shot like a diorama, even the curious opening scene — in which a criminal played by Nick Offerman buries a bag of loot under the floorboards of a seedy hotel room — is built around clichés. The story picks up 10 years later, in a stray pocket of time between the ’60s and ’70s, when a priest (Jeff Bridges), a slick vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), and a lounge singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, electric in “Widows” and even better here) converge on the semi-abandoned El Royale lodge and casino on the border of Nevada and California. And in this case, “on the border” is meant to be taken literally — the state line runs straight through the lobby, with gambling allowed on one side and drinking allowed on the other. It’s a purgatory that’s somehow in two places at once, and also nowhere at all.
Once the hottest spot in Lake Tahoe, the El Royale is now a crumbling dump where a room costs $8 a night, but customers often rent by the hour. There’s only one employee left: A scrawny, nervous junkie named Miles (Lewis Pullman) who works as the concierge, the bartender, and whatever else. The kid seems a bit overwhelmed by the sudden influx of guests, even before rude hippie Dakota Johnson shows up with some precious human cargo in the trunk of her car. Aside from Miles, the only thing that still works in the hotel is the Wurlitzer in the back, and Goddard keeps the golden oldies spinning from start to finish.
It’s clear from the jump that everyone — everyone — is hiding something, and it isn’t long before you start to suspect that the movie itself is trying to disguise its true intentions. There’s something about the patter between Goddard’s characters as they meet each other for the first time. The dialogue is amusing, but not funny. The guests at the El Royale are all generic, but they’re all played by actors who are too interesting for such conspicuous roles (none of them can quite settle into their types, like they’ve each got a pebble in their shoes). The aesthetic is stylized, but never strong enough in one direction for the film to belong to any of its forbearers.
Even the influences feel out of focus. Curt title cards, frequent time jumps, and a predilection for period details reeks of Tarantino, but the premise owes more to Alfred Hitchcock, or Agatha Christie for that matter. John Huston’s “Key Largo” is the movie that comes to mind as night falls and the rains come with it. Really, it doesn’t matter what the references are — for Goddard, the important thing is that you’re trying to name them; that you’re a half-step removed from the story so you can clock how it screws with your expectations.
Once again, Goddard makes that idea literal, as Hamm’s character — basically a Southern-fried parody of Don Draper — discovers a two-way mirror in his room, and follows it to find a corridor that allows him to spy on all of the other guests (someone will later describe the El Royale as “some kind of pervert hotel”). That’s when the movie shows us its voyeuristic soul, as Goddard crafts a bravura sequence that puts a fresh layer of distance between his audience and his plot. The turn is far less explicitly meta-textual than the big reveal in “The Cabin in the Woods,” but it delivers the same jolt of excitement. And this time, we get to hear Cynthia Erivo belting out a doo-wop classic over the whole, in the first of three killer scenes that let the Tony-winner sing at the top of her lungs. If only the rest of the movie were as emotionally involving as those scenes — if only the character work was as rich and layered as Erivo’s voice — maybe “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have worked as well as a story as it does as a thought exercise.
From that point on, the film is a series of delicious reveals and deadly reversals, each a bit more satisfying than the last. The film only becomes more fun as you get hip to what it’s doing, with Goddard’s big cast continuing to balloon over the course of this 140-minute epic. Chris Hemsworth as a shredded, dancing, Charles Manson-esque cult figure who triple underlines the Tarantino connection? Sure. Xavier Dolan as an evil British music executive? Why not. “The Good Place” star Manny Jacinto as a henchman without any lines of dialogue? Okay. All (or at least most) of these characters — stuck in the limbo between heaven and Las Vegas — are looking for some measure of forgiveness, and a few of them might even find it. A few more of them might get a shotgun blast to the back when they least expect it, because this is nothing if not the kind of movie where people get shotgunned in the back when they least expect it.
But we don’t want that for them. The more that Goddard upends our assumptions about who’s good, who’s bad, and who’s going to live through the night, the more we realize that we’re rooting for all of these fucked-up people to get right with the world. It’s massively didactic, but in a way that encourages us to dwell on how we feel about these characters, and how malleable those feelings are. We’re quicker to judge people in a movie than we are in real life, but we’re quicker to forgive them as well, and there’s a profound degree of wish fulfillment in that — if only we were that generous with ourselves or each other, then maybe we wouldn’t be so drawn to stories of dispossessed criminals, or so eager for them to get away with murder. Figuratively. Or literally. As Bridges’ character puts it so well: “I’m old. Shit happens. Get the whiskey.”
20th Century Fox will release “Bad Times at the El Royale” in theaters on October 12th.