This lurid, neo-noir crime-thriller is not my kind of movie but, as a critic, my job is to evaluate how well a filmmaker accomplishes what he/she set out to do, and I suppose writer/director Drew Goddard does. Goddard’s saga begins ominously in 1959 with a bank robber (Nick Offerman) getting a back full of buckshot after burying a sack of cash under the floorboards in a Lake Tahoe hotel room. His assailant is seen in the doorway, backlit, toting a shotgun.
Flash-forward 10 years to the El Royale, a once-famous hotel/casino that straddles the border between California and Nevada. Once a hopping hangout, hosting the Rat Park and other celebrities, it was basically abandoned after its proprietor lost his gambling license.
Among its current guests are the bank robber’s brother, hard-drinking Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); Motown back-up singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), who never scored as a soloist; frantic, foul-mouth’d Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and her younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny), who has fallen under the spell of bare-chested, charismatic Bill Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a sociopathic cult leader.
Plus there’s Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a slick-talking traveling salesman from Biloxi, Mississippi, and guilt-riddled, heroin-addicted Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the hotel’s only employee.
They’re seven strangers, pretending to be someone they’re not, each hiding a secret, as we discover over a suspenseful, 12-hour period one night.
Evoking the voyeuristic quality of Goddard’s previous film (“The Cabin in the Woods”), the hotel’s surveillance system includes a dark hallway connecting each of the rooms – with a speaker-box and one-way mirror looking into each unit, and a camera at the end of the corridor – suggesting an unmistakable scent of scandal.
So who killed the bank robber? We never find out.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a seedy, slogging, self-conscious 6, concluding with Quentin Tarantino-inspired bloodshed and violence.