Drew Goddard’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” reads like a setup for a joke: A Catholic priest, a vaccuum salesman, a foul-mouthed singer and a down-on-her-luck black singer end up at a once popular hotel that straddles the Nevada-California border. Goddard, who wrote and directed this neo-noir thriller uses flashbacks and different viewpoint reveals as he slowly unwraps one bad 24-hours in a run-down hotel.
Beginning in 1959, we see a man hurriedly pulling up a rug and then prying up the floorboards to hide a weighty, sturdy bag. He’s waiting for company, but when the dude shows up, the man in the room gets gun blast as a bloody hello.
A decade later, salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) is waiting impatiently for service. The priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo who won a 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical as well as the 2017 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album for the revival of “The Color Purple”) join him for a bit of exposition: The hotel lost some permits, closing down the party at this Lake Tahoe resort but the decor suggests other reasons for the lack of clamoring crowds. They are joined by Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) who seems like a rich, spoiled girl posing as a hippy who declines to give her name or identity.
When the only employee Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) shows up, he gives a jaded sales pitch about choosing between staying in Nevada or California.Sullivan takes the honeymoon suite (Room 1), the father flips a coin for Room 4 and Sweet gets Room 5. The hippy woman gets Room 7. All of these people have a secret, including the fresh-faced Miles. Yet those suspicious large rolls that Sweet carries turn out to be insulation.
The priest, is really Donald O’Kelly, the brother of the man who was murdered a decade earlier. The salesman turns out to be an FBI agent, Dwight Broadbeck, who soon learns that their bugs are matched by devices from an unidentified source. The agent follows up his investigation and discovers that the hotel is sort of an observation museum: A passageway behind the walls and two-way mirrors allow someone to watch the rooms. Someone has also been filming. Broadbeck witnesses Emily carry a bound and gagged woman (Cailee Spaeny) out of her trunk and into the room where she ties her to a chair. Using a phone booth, he reports back about the bugs and the kidnapping to his superiors. They instruct him to incapacitate all the cars, stay away from the kidnapping and wait for backup.
The agent and the criminal’s plans go horribly wrong. And someone does come to rescue the kidnapped girl. A Charles Manson-like commune leader, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), enters into the fray and people will die, but there will be a happy ending.
This is a tightly wound clock with old stylings and much flair. Each of the main actors is a jewel in this expertly timed piece that might remind you of “Pulp Fiction” because of the way the story unfolds and the back stories are revealed, but with less virtuosity in the violence and foul language. It’s hard to determine just who the bad guy is and something are left a mystery, but the ending still satisfies. My only quibble is that as Hemsworth Billy Lee is just too good-looking for the Manson reference.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a good time for fans of expert editing and neo-noir fantasies where justice is served with a side of subversiveness.