Bad Times at the El Royale is set in 1969. That’s the year that flashes up on the screen early on, but this detail would’ve been easy to glean regardless. Drew Goddard’s new film has a lot in common with his 2012 directorial debut, the sly satire The Cabin in the Woods. It’s centered on an ensemble coming together in a strange, vaguely magical location, where nobody is quite who they seem and story conventions get bent and refracted in surprising ways. But where The Cabin in the Woods existed to subvert horror tropes, Bad Times at the El Royale is a farewell ballad not to a genre, but to an entire decade.
The El Royale is the hotel setting of this overly long, noir-tinged thriller. A once-ritzy establishment straddling the border between California and Nevada, it offers gambling on one side and creature comforts on the other. But its glory days are past—pictures on the wall of famous visitors like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra are gathering dust, the only food is whatever’s left in the Automat, and the solitary bellhop, Miles (Lewis Pullman), has to double as the concierge.
In other words, the building—which plays host to a curious cast of characters, who mostly arrive in the first act—is an echo of American exceptionalism that now feels like a hollowed-out fantasy. It’s a perfect backdrop for the story Goddard is trying to tell, where the El Royale’s nostalgic sheen covers up some grisly secrets. But the metaphor can only delight for so long, and Bad Times at the El Royale does outstay its welcome with a 140-minute running time. The Cabin in the Woods was a tight 95 minutes and played like an epic episode of The Twilight Zone. El Royale likewise has a clever plot construction but drags each scene out to the point of parody.