I have an anxious feeling that writer-director Drew Goddard wants us to take “Bad Times at the El Royale” as an allegory. In much the same way you suspected the Eagles weren’t singing about a specific Holiday Inn in “Hotel California,” so the El Royale is perhaps much more than just a dated motel on the Nevada-California border.
You can decide for yourself about that. But whenever “El Royale” isn’t reaching for larger possibilities, it invents some wicked situations and surprises, served up by a lively cast.
The basic idea puts a group of strangers into a Tahoe motel for a single rotten evening.
This comes after a brilliantly conceived prologue, in which we watch a mystery man (Nick Offerman) bury something valuable under the floorboards of an El Royale room.
Ten years later (it’s now 1969), the place appears to be without management or staff, except for a beleaguered clerk (Lewis Pullman, the talented son of Bill Pullman). He must explain that half the motel lies in California, the other half in Nevada, and different rules apply in each space.
We meet a priest (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), an obnoxious vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm, from “Mad Men”) and two young women played by “Fifty Shades” star Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny. Everyone’s purpose is suspicious, and it takes a while to sort it all out.
Lingering in the background, and then coming very much to the foreground, is a persistently bare-chested cult leader, part Charles Manson, part Jim Morrison. He’s played by Chris Hemsworth, who looks relieved to be out of his “Thor” costume for a while.
These folks scurry around the El Royale, discovering bizarre things about the joint and about themselves. People are going to use the T-word when describing this movie — and yes, there is the scent of Quentin Tarantino in the air, especially the use of chapter headings, time-shifting and long talky scenes.
Unfortunately, “El Royale” drags during those dialogue marathons in a way that Tarantino’s movies don’t. And Goddard, who made the clever horror film “Cabin in the Woods,” doesn’t have quite enough twists to justify the 141-minute running time.
But a couple of surprises score well on the drop-your-popcorn metric. And the actors always give you something to watch: Erivo is a soulful new presence in movies (she won a Tony for the stage production of “The Color Purple”), Hamm is in exuberant form and Bridges hunkers down for a sneakily sincere turn.
This movie deserves at least a cult following, if only to argue over what it’s really about. Hey, it worked for “Hotel California.”
“Bad Times at the El Royale” (2½ stars)
A group of strangers spend a rotten night at a motel on the Nevada-California border, a situation that doesn’t really sustain its 141-minute time, but that provides some genuinely good surprises along the way. A good cast, too, for this future cult film: Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, and newcomer Cynthia Erivo.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall