Characters enter the ominous digs in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” but they don’t always exit. This is hardly news. As the title suggests, El Royale — a motor lodge with pretensions of grandeur, which seems like an apt metaphor for this movie — isn’t a place for a good night’s sleep. It’s a spot for intrigue, desperation, swinging tunes and bloodletting. Mostly, it is a wellspring for a lot of talk, both seemingly idle chatter and carefully obfuscating oratories. Words are never casually exchanged at the Royale here but are instead deployed like weapons in what soon resembles a war of all against all.
These many words have flowed from Drew Goddard, a screenwriter whose high-profile credits include “The Martian” and who made his directing debut with the self-knowing horror movie “The Cabin in the Woods.” He also directed “Bad Times” and imbued it with a similar self-consciousness, an attitude that has become almost a default in genre movies. Like many contemporary filmmakers who take on established cinematic forms, Goddard wants to play inside the frame and also to put his individuality on the picture. Optimistically set at the intersection of Agatha Christie and Quentin Tarantino, “Bad Times” is a hard-boiled thriller with flashes of a horror but largely a statement of authorial intent.
The movie starts off on an ominous note that soon turns faintly comic after a solitary man (Nick Offerman) enters a motel room that, partly because of the frontal presentation, resembles a stage. A study in midcentury drab, the room is clean, borderline austere, meticulously arranged and one flickering light bulb away from David Lynch-style uneasiness. The man’s fedora and the silhouette of his clothing suggest that it’s the 1950s. He soon doffs his hat and begins moving the room’s furnishings to expose the wooden floor, which he then methodically tears up. One of the few silent characters in the movie, he doesn’t say a word; and then, in a flash, he’s dead.
The story proper begins a decade later, circa 1969, now swathed in the mystery of the first man’s death. (The clothing and some television footage of Richard M. Nixon roughly indicate the period change.) The Royale no longer attracts the high rollers and big names it once did; all that remains of its once-glittering past are the framed celebrity photos hanging on a wall. The joint appears deserted, like an abandoned film set. Even after some guests start dribbling in, there’s a sense that something has been lost, a feeling that — as the blood spills — suggests that Goddard is teasing an idea, perhaps something about the shift from the 1950s to the ’60s.
And maybe he is, though his attention is primarily invested in keeping things creepy, scary and off-kilter. In this, he gets a lot of support from his very fine actors, who each get a big moment (sometimes more) and reams of dialogue. They enter — stage left, stage right — a smiling, yammering, disparate group that seems like the windup to an elaborate joke: a salesman (Jon Hamm) walks into a motel with a priest (a soulful Jeff Bridges) and a singer (Cynthia Erivo). Over time, these three are joined by the motel’s manager (Lewis Pullman), a hippie (Dakota Johnson), a kidnapping victim (Cailee Spaeny) and a menace (Chris Hemsworth, having demonstrable fun).
Goddard spends quite a bit of time putting these characters, all vague archetypes, into position. They smile and exchange small talk, initially moving in the cavernous entryway like plotted geometric points. One side of the Royale is in California, the other in Nevada, and a bold red line runs through the motel, dividing it into near-mirrored halves. The characters too are carefully divided between their public and private selves. They all have secrets, some benign and others dangerous, even lethal. Like veteran gamblers, they at first hold their cards close to the chest, keeping them from both the other guests and the audience until the bad times arrive, just as promised.
For a while, the performances and the visual style keep you easily engaged, as does the pileup of secrets. Every character has his or her reasons, naturally, and each pulls you into another mystery. One has a hidden stash of cash, while another carries a badge. The secrets often tumble out after the characters check into their rooms amid the jump cuts, flashbacks and cinephile allusions ( etc.). Goddard keeps everything smoothly, ebbing and flowing as the characters separate and join together, but at some point during this logy 2-hour-and-21-minute exercise you want something more substantial than even Hemsworth’s admittedly mesmerizing snaky hips.
Bad Times at the El Royale
Rated R for bloody gun violence. Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes.