Though it keeps bringing on new characters and theme-bombs and shaking things up with plot reversals and revelations and flashbacks, Drew Goddard’s follow-up film to Cabin in the Woods seems to be slowly running out of steam from its first moments. It opens with a single set-up (though not a single take) of a mcguffin cash stash being buried under the floorboards of a room at the California-Nevada-straddling El Royale hotel accompanied by a song about Catalina island (Glen Larson co-wrote it) and the firmly held, medium shot (presumably from the POV of a two-way mirror, though if anyone were watching the whole plot wouldn’t be able to unfold) gets irritating well before someone else shows up and shotguns the guy.
Then, ten years later, early in the Nixon presidency, the hotel – which has lost its gambling license and is therefore on a downswing – is visited by a collection of eccentrics, who all have their secrets … Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), a black woman, isn’t a hooker (her bedroll is for DIY soundproofing) but a singer in the Phil Spector style who wants to rehearse a capella for a gig … Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) isn’t a priest, but a heist man just out of jail and here to dig up the cash – though his incipient dementia and forgetfulness is real … Laramie Seymour (John Hamm) isn’t a vacuum cleaner salesman but an FBI agent who unbugs the honeymoon suite only to find two sets of recording apparatus … and hippie chick Emily (Dakota Johnson) has apparent kidnap victim Rosie (Cailee Spaeny) in her car trunk, but is actually trying to rescue her sister from a Mansonesque hippie cult after a Tatesque slaughter spree. Miles (Lewis Pullman), the only employee on site, is a junkie with a need to confess to the priest, and guilt-ridden about a lot of things – the tunnels and spy set-up that establish the motel as a blackmail factory aren’t even the main thing he’s worried about having on his soul when he dies.
In Tarantino-like overlapping chapters, all these people monologue at each other, commit acts of violence with collateral damage, stumble over another mcguffin (a film of a dead idol being disgraceful – presumably Robert Kennedy, though Martin Luther King would fit just as well), have their own padded flashbacks, and listen to a lot of great music, with the bursts of song from Darlene even eventually becoming tiresome. Just as it starts raining and all the cars are disabled and the first body has dropped, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) shows up – summoned by ingrate dim bulb brainwashee Rose – and delivers yet more speeches, which provokes a smart if too-polished response from Darlene about how he’s just as full of shit as the establishment men who justify their hypocrisy with ponderous moralities but still fuck with who they want to fuck with out of sheer smug entitlement. And then there’s a Vietnam flashback, and a lot more bodies drop, and the motel catches fire but folk stick around to converse some more in the picturesque flames before getting their singed tails out of there.
The set is impressive, the cast is terrific – though surely given the calibre of the rest of the folk on offer, Goddard could have done better than Dakota Johnson – and it has bursts of being entertaining, but it’s undisciplined and overlong and still doesn’t resolve a ton of things it sets up as key plot points (what happened to the weasel who shot Flynn’s brother, who are the other buggers) when sorting out its Cluedo timeline of who did what to who in which room with which implement. Goddard also finds room for Nick Offerman, filmmaker Xavier Dolan (as a Phil Spector type), William B. Davis, Katharine Isabelle (imagine casting Dakota Johnson a lead role and relegating Katharine Isabelle to a nearly-invisible bit?!) and Shea Whigham.