Some filmmakers make movies about the world; others make movies about other movies, or the puzzle being assembled before our eyes. Drew Goddard belongs to the second category, and he's pretty good at it. I'm still trying to figure out why I don't respond more fully to his work.
In his writing-directing feature debut, "The Cabin in the Woods" (2012), "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" alum Goddard dismantled and recombined a crazy number of horror-movie tropes, and his bamboozle went completely, entertainingly, gorily berserk in the climax. Though similar (if less cathartic) in its splatter finale, the payoffs in Goddard's new puzzle picture, the comparatively well-behaved "Bad Night at the El Royale," actually arrive earlier.
Like Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," this one's very nearly a stage play, or could be. ("Should be" is another matter.) Prologue: In 1959, a thief hides a bag of stolen money beneath the floorboards of a room in the El Royale, a remote "hidy-hole for the Lake Tahoe swells" located on the border between California and Nevada.
Ten years later, four strangers converge at the place. There's a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm), a backup singer (Cynthia Erivo), a disreputable-looking priest (Jeff Bridges) and a dreamy-scary hippie (Dakota Johnson), plus the sole motel employee on duty (Lewis Pullman). The motel itself takes ring-a-ding-ding kitsch to amusing extremes, thanks to production designer Martin Whist.
Others arrive at the El Royale later, for various, nefarious reasons, chiefly a Charles Manson-styled cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) looking to pull one of his acolytes back into the fold. Pulp thrillers of all sorts benefit from a third-act menace, and that's Hemsworth's role here.
Paradoxically, that's where the movie stalls. Methodical in its pacing, laced with flashbacks and "meanwhile, over in Room 5" chapter designations, "Bad Times at the El Royale" maintains interest for an hour or so. We piece together what's going on behind the two-way mirrors, or who the salesman really is, or why the dreamy-scary hippie looks like she's being hunted. The movie is 100 percent plot, 60 percent of which serves itself nicely. The rest tends to self-compete.
Among a highly skilled cast, Erivo was the only one I cared about. Her character serves as the audience lifeline through the web of cover-ups, surveillance games and justified paranoia. Also, Erivo is just plain fantastic on screen. (She's great in the upcoming "Widows," too.) A Tony Award winner for "The Color Purple," the Londoner boasts a soulfully expressive singing style, which Goddard puts to fine use throughout this longish 142-minute affair.
Like Tarantino, Goddard is a clever structuralist. He attracts strong actors, and lets them stretch out and try things, and gives them juicy dialogue. But, like Tarantino, he doesn't have a sure sense of internal rhythm scene to scene; a different director could take 15 minutes out of Goddard's script simply by tightening the pace and varying the dynamics. We only have this one life to live. Let's live it without so many pauses for effect.