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Review: Expect the unexpected in 'Bad Times at the El Royale'

| Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, 3:33 p.m.

The setup of “Bad Times at the El Royale” sounds familiar, even cliche: Seven strangers, each with a skeleton in the closet, find themselves thrown together at a hotel that has seen better days, and that itself hides a secret — one that is revealed in the short, wham-bam prologue that sets the stage for this 1969-set film, which is part B-movie sendup, part noirish hybrid of mystery and black comedy, and all original.

The name of its writer and director, Drew Goddard, may not mean anything to some. But anyone who has seen Goddard’s only previous film, the meta-horror movie “The Cabin in the Woods,” or who knows his work as a writer on such projects as “Lost,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the Oscar-nominated adaptation of “The Martian,” will know to expect the unexpected.

Not all of its surprises are pleasant ones, but there is a certain satisfaction in experiencing a yarn that is so obstinately un-anticipatable.

Metaphorical baggage

Set in the titular hotel, a Lake Tahoe-area lodge that straddles the Nevada-California line, the action of the film takes place on a night when the front-desk clerk of the normally godforsaken inn (Lewis Pullman) is suddenly overwhelmed by small scramble for rooms.

A traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) — or four people who claim to be those things — show up at about the same time, lugging more metaphorical baggage than the real kind.

It sounds like the prelude to a joke. And in some ways it is one.

With a Tarantino-esque soundtrack of vintage R&B and classic pop-rock tunes playing over much of this soon-to-turn-lurid-and-bloody tale, the film feels (and sounds) at times like a parody of something. But of what, it’s not exactly clear.

More vivid than the original

“Bad Times” is period-perfect, with gorgeous production design (by Martin Whist) and a moody score (by Michael Giacchino), but it’s also a little too perfect: a 21st-century wisenheimer’s appropriation — and recapitulation — of an era that appears more vivid and colorful than the original ever was, because it’s a fantasy.

Woven into this fantasy, over a slightly overlong running time, are narrative threads involving the Vietnam War, a Manson-like cult and the civil rights struggle. But Goddard never wields these themes to score difficult sociopolitical points

Rather, he seems more interested in the 1960s as an idea — a good-looking narrative device — rather than a real and turbulent time. It’s a beautiful picture frame, surrounding a lot of ugliness and violence.

An indelible cast

More indelible even than the art direction, however, is the cast, which is headed up by Bridges in the kind of tough-but-tender performance he seems capable of delivering with his hands tied behind his back (and, in fact, his character is bound in the film’s crazy climax, which lurches hither and yon, for better and for worse).

Paired off against him is Erivo’s Darlene Sweet, a Reno songstress with the bluesy voice of a honky-tonk angel who is struggling to make it in the racist, sexist world of showbiz. Erivo, a 2016 Tony Award winner for the musical “The Color Purple,” is the film’s breakout star, making her upcoming role in “Widows” even more of a must-see.

Chris Hemsworth, who also starred in Goddard’s “Cabin,” compensates for getting dispatched relatively early in that film by showing up very late in the game here, in a darker role than fans of his “Thor” movies may know what to do with.

At least I didn’t.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” certainly goes places you wouldn’t predict, but it’s not always evident why.

Like the namesake hotel, which boasts a red line running through its lobby — one side the home state of Tinseltown, the other Sin City — “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a schizoid thing: terribly, terribly entertaining, and at times just a wee bit soulless.

Michael O’Sullivan is a Washington Post writer.

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