If you don’t know the name Drew Goddard, there’s a good chance you know his work. Getting his start in the writing room of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Goddard has quietly built an impressive resume of credits, writing television for Lost, Alias and the first season of Daredevil movies like Cloverfield, The Martian (earning him an Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay) and World War Z, and co-writing and directing 2012’s meta horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods. Cabin in the Woods showed a lot of promise for Goddard as a director, and he’s since gone on to direct episodes of the best show on television, The Good Place. You can tell from his work that he appeals to a pretty broad swath of nerdy pop culture, as well as having a rather staggering success rate. Any new project at this point in his career would have a lot of excitement behind it.
His newest project marks a return to the director’s chair with Bad Times at the El Royale, a sprawling mystery set in a Lake Tahoe hotel that straddles the California and Nevada borders. Four strangers arrive at the otherwise deserted hotel at nearly the same time, a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a priest (Jeff Bridges) and a young woman (Dakota Johnson), each with their own stories and each with something to hide. The only proprietor is a young bellhop named Miles (Lewis Pullman). They check in and abscond to their rooms, immediately dropping all pretense and revealing their true natures and reasons for arriving at the El Royale. Clearly, there’s more going on here than meets the eye on all sides of the equation. And far away on the beaches of California, a charismatic Jim Morrison-esque cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) is on a collision course with them all.
There are times when Bad Times at the El Royale almost seems like another sort of Cabin in the Woods. As we learn more about these people, their motives and their backstories, it seems clear that something else is going on, the sort of layered conspiracies and secrets that made that film so engaging. Bad Times isn’t quite the sort of meta commentary the way Cabin in the Woods was, and despite the plot’s twists and turns, this is a far more straightforward film. Perhaps it’s unfair, but considering Goddard’s previous work and the considerations of the first act, it’s easy to believe that there’s more going on here than the movie seems interested in telling us. The California/Nevada divide is played up in trailers and promotional material, but doesn’t quite pay off thematically the way it should. Sure, the film alludes to all sorts of shadowy doings, strings being pulled by “Management” and the like, but none of it manages to lead anywhere satisfying.
Goddard sure takes his time, though. Every main character in the film gets an often extended flashback to explain how they found their way to the hotel. Each is set up with a title card, which soon become a moment to dread as you know you’re in for a pace-shattering change-up. There’s some good content from time to time (Bridges’ flashback has some especially nice moments and visual panache), but it takes so long to tell its story that the momentum of the present day is constantly lost. Bad Times at the El Royale is a long film, a healthy two hours and twenty minutes, which should be plenty of real estate to tell his story. In practice, it’s way too much real estate with not enough to fill it. This movie is begging for another editing pass to cut out half an hour. Once Hemsworth joins the fray, things pick up in a major way (clearly Goddard has an innate understanding of how to direct him), but by that point it’s just a bit too late to overcome the time it took to get us there.
And that’s the frustrating thing about watching Bad Times at the El Royale. The elements are all there. The cast is roundly excellent, especially Erivo and Bridges, who are tasked with with the emotional heavy lifting. Once Hemsworth makes his entrance, things spring to life for the sprint to the credits. But prior to that, there often just isn’t enough going on to keep up the momentum and support the run time. Erivo has a great singing voice, and it’s tough to critique Goddard for showcasing it, but by the third full length performance, it’s harder to justify the way he’s pacing things. There are moments and individual experiences in this film I want to revisit and enjoy again, but I couldn’t imagine sitting through the full thing unabated.
It’s tough not thinking of this as a pale imitation of a Agatha Christie murder mystery. It’s not required to all wrap up comfortably, but there’s far too many loose threads dangling in the wind by the time the credits roll. Sure, you can explain a way a lot of the half-baked ideas as thematic window dressing that doesn’t necessarily need a strict resolution (there’s some pretty heavy-handed allegorical content here), and that would likely be fine in a movie that doesn’t so clearly overstay its welcome. But Bad Times at the El Royale does exactly that, making it harder to overlook its flaws. As good as Hemsworth and Erivo and Bridges and Lewis Pullman are, the rest of the cast doesn’t get enough to cling onto. Hamm and Johnson are perfectly fine, but you’re left wanting more from them. And as the film drags into its third hour, it’s hard not to wonder how they ran out of room for them. It’s rare that studio meddling would be considered a good thing, but it feels pretty clear that Goddard had a little too much control over his own work here, and the end product suffered for it. This is not meant to be an indictment; sophomore slumps are both common and recoverable. And I’m still excited to see what the next project up Goddard’s sleeve is, whether it’s more writing work or a return to the director’s chair. Hopefully, a decade from now, we’ll look back at Bad Times at the El Royale as a bump in the road of an otherwise fruitful career.