By the time Chris Hemsworth and his torso arrive to raise hell at the trashy hotel El Royale, all of the mysteries have been explained. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.
Imagine being wowed at a magic show, only to have the magician explain how every single trick worked. That’s what it feels like to watch writer-director Drew Goddard’s new pulp thriller, “Bad Times at the El Royale.” It’s a surprising development considering Goddard’s thoroughly enjoyable 2012 directorial debut, the cheeky horror-comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” as well as his many acclaimed screenwriting credits (including an Oscar nomination for 2015’s “The Martian”).
It’s a dark and stormy night at the El Royale, a trashy hotel straddling the border between Nevada and California. What was once “Tahoe’s best-kept secret” is now “a pervert hotel,” complete with creepy hidden cameras and a front-desk clerk with drug needles sticking out of his arm. It’s the sort of place where secrets and hope go to die.
Little surprise, then, that it attracts a special kind of sleaze. You have Jon Hamm as a chatty vacuum-cleaner salesmen, Cynthia Erivo as a failed lounge singer and Jeff Bridges as a morally bankrupt priest, just to name a few of the seven principal characters. Each guest harbors their own hidden agenda and they aren’t afraid to pursue it behind the barrel of a gun. Much like a roach motel, most of this first-rate cast checks in, but they don’t check out.
The purpose of these Tarantino-inspired crime thrillers is to beguile audiences with clever twists and cunning linguists. Goddard proves his own worst enemy in this regard. All of the tantalizing mysteries — and there are several sprinkled throughout the film’s gargantuan 140-minute running time — are quickly solved by flashbacks detailing each character’s backstory and motivation. By the time Chris Hemsworth and his torso arrive to raise hell at the El Royale, all of the mysteries have been explained.
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Goddard also skimps on the humor and witty banter, instead adopting a languid, dour tone that invites boredom. Thankfully, the cast is imminently watchable. Bridges, in particular, is wonderful. It’s refreshing to see him set aside “The Dude” and do some genuine character building. Lewis Pullman also shines as the troubled desk clerk, who serves as the film’s (very) late-arriving moral conscience.
Themes exploring redemption and forgiveness fall flat because it’s impossible to empathize with these characters. Mostly, this is an exercise in style; a slick tribute to righteous trash that promises a lot more fun than it actually delivers.
★★ “Bad Times at the El Royale,” with Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman, Dakota Johnson. Written and directed by Drew Goddard. 140 minutes. Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity. Opens Oct. 12 by multiple theaters.