At Ta­hoe no-tell mo­tel, ne­far­i­ous guests con­verge

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - DINING - By Michael Phillips Chicago Tri­bune

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 well­be­haved “Bad Times 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 dis­rep­utablelook­ing priest (Jeff Bridges) and a dreamy-scary hip­pie (Dakota John­son), plus the sole mo­tel em­ployee on duty (Lewis Pull­man). The mo­tel it­self takes ring-ad­ing-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 MPAA rat­ing: Run­ning time: 2:22 Opens: Fri­day 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 Lon- doner 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. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.

KIM­BER­LEY FRENCH/20TH CEN­TURY FOX

A cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) shows up to cause trou­ble for mo­tel guests in “Bad Times at the El Royale.”R (for strong vi­o­lence, lan­guage, some drug con­tent and brief nu­dity)

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