Bad Times at the El Royale review: Drew Goddard checks in as one of the most exciting filmmakers of the year with this little guestbook of horrors.

Bad Times At The El Royale review
Bad Times At The El Royale review

A dispirited but virtuous songstress (Cynthia Erivo), an amnesiac priest who can’t recall his church hymns (Jeff Bridges), a slick-talking city dweller (Jon Hamm) and an antisocial, trigger-happy hippie (Dakota Johnson) all tumble in from different directions, out of the night and into a run-down hotel on the literal border between two states. Collecting their keys from Miles, the anxiety-pocked bellboy, with varying degrees of gratitude, they meet at the brink.

If the premise of the EL Royale sounds like a questionable joke, this is fine, because there’s humour in spades — tar-black and impious, and broiling with wit, it drips from the beams and fills the filaments of the lobby and every room on the Californian line. This is also fine because it is plenty questionable too. Like all the best pulp fictions it keeps its characters’ intentions firmly in the dark side of things, till withdrawing them, like point blank pistol ranges, in the finale: a pitch-perfect, immaculately built-toward a showdown raised upon full-proof motivations.

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A narrative designed like this, wherein characters know nothing of one another and act under the assumption of unfamiliarity at all times, could easily slip into muddled waters, but we trust the sense of purpose. The stage has been painstakingly set. Goddard never has us doubt for a second that each of the disparate threads: a hoky cult leader (Hemsworth), a secret hallway at the back of the Royale that’s lined with one way-windows into the rooms, and the priest’s disposition to move floorboards — are less the parallel short stories than they first appear. Lines gradually intersect, humanity and cruelty strike together, and everything means something. With his roster of miniature plots and distinct cast of guests, Goddard picks up and fondles various constructs of American worship: sex, cult, money, war, even fame, before plonking them down again in indicting rejection of their worth when the chips are down and death is at the door. While this is, first and foremost, a fun, unabashedly silly, un-timidly violent, white-knuckle rollercoaster ride (all slow to the top, and breathless going down), no one can say the author hasn’t thought about the room for meaning and wickedly clever allegory that single-set stories thrive upon.

Bad Times At The El Royale review
Bad Times At The El Royale review

Goddard’s own original screenplay draws from the familiar. In particular, the re-staging of scenes over and over from fractals of different points of view and time is straight from Tarantino’s box of magic tricks. But the overarching sense of voyeurism and the fluidity that comes from the fact that every scene holds a secret, personal weight from character to character keeps things thrillingly new. A locked room mystery is another’s murder scene, is another’s hidden treasure spot, is another’s musical stage. And like all the best slow-burn plot-boilers, the characters are perfectly etched out creations from the mind of a bonafide visionary.

What the director has done with his characters is not just impressive for their three-dimensional frenetic-ness, but for the absolutely delightful, revelatory, effect that each of the pulpy beings has had on their actors. Jeff Bridges is given ample room to play with the spirit in his unholy holy man, Chris Hemsworth turns in his first truly dark, post-MCU icon as a chipper Manson type following his ex-cultees to the rundown barracks of the hotel for a bit of pie and a bit of killing, and Johnson gets another shot at showing her true range, as a big sister with a conundrum on her hands — and she hits the bullseye.
The verifiable star of the show, however, is clearly Erivo as down on her luck Darlene Sweet. A Broadway star transferred here seamlessly to the screen, she is the breakout. Her voice is a belter for sure – used not just for swinging style by Goddard but in turns to crank up the tension, mask plot-vital shenanigans, and, just once, in a palpable challenge that blows the ticker off the finale’s emotional temperature. Sweet might be the only human whose soul arrives intact to the El Royale, and the cocktail of compassion and revulsion on her face at all times is a humdinger.

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Meanwhile, gorgeously rendered 60’s styled sets elevate the palpable sense of place and time further. Martin Whist has built rouge lit beauties — with shots of garish interiors and porches glistening in the rain that are funky fresh even as they emanate with the bygone and the nostalgic. This is a piece that looks like somewhere we would want to linger for a while before inevitably ducking for cover and escaping back into the dusk, a little bit afraid, but in this story’s grip, still transcendently entertained. Cinemas were built to tell tales like this.

The audience are all guests of Goddard here; one may be housed, for a little while, within the wild machinations of the writer-director’s mind, but the films’ gloriously twisty noir roots will ensure we are not comfortable there for long. A fairytale this is not. A self-knowing, allegorical legend in the making, perhaps. A tale of infamy colliding and unforgettable characters crumbling to their fascinating demises – certainly. More of this, and more like this, could never be a missed trick.

Bad Times At The El Royale review by Abi Silverthorne, October 2018.

Bad Times At The El Royale is released in UK cinemas on 12th October 2018.

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Bad Times At The El Royale