Published On: Thu, Oct 11th, 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale is a suspenseful dive down a rabbit hole

Bad Times at the El Royale

You haven't seen anything yet. Get tickets for Bad Times at the El Royale, in theaters October 12: http://www.ElRoyaleTickets.com

Starring Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Cynthia Erivo, John Hamm and Lewis Pullman. Written and directed by Drew Goddard. Opens Friday at major theatres. 142 minutes. 14A

There are two obvious things about Bad Times at the El Royale.

One is the title, which this movie engagingly lives up to. There’s indeed mucho badness within and without the fictional Lake Tahoe hotel of the title — and also lots of blood being spilled.

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The other obvious thing is writer/director Drew Goddard. We know he has a knack for puzzlebox tales that span genre boundaries, much like the El Royale is split by the state line between California and Nevada. Goddard hides secrets within secrets, as fans of his first feature The Cabin in the Woods and his scripts for TV’s Lost can attest.

This leaves us with much that isn’t immediately apparent about the hotel and its inhabitants, as the film makes a suspenseful dive down a long and twisting rabbit hole. It’s like an Agatha Christie story told by Quentin Tarantino and Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy).

Reviewers must tread carefully, to avoid hitting one of many spoiler tripwires.

It seems safe to describe the prologue, set in the late 1950s, which Goddard shoots in dim half light to obscure faces and intentions, a technique he frequently employs. A shady character played by Nick Offerman checks into a room at the neon-adorned El Royale, turns up a pop song on the radio, and proceeds to hide a bag of cash beneath the floorboards.

Jump to 10 years later, roughly 1969, and Edwin Starr’s hit “Twenty-Five Miles” from that year is on the pop-laden soundtrack. A worried-looking soul singer named Darlene, played by Cynthia Erivo of Steve McQueen’s upcoming Widows, is attempting to check into the same hotel.

Chris Hemsworth plays Billy Lee in Bad Times at the El Royale. He summons comparisons to a notorious cult leader from 1969, Peter Howell writes.
Chris Hemsworth plays Billy Lee in Bad Times at the El Royale. He summons comparisons to a notorious cult leader from 1969, Peter Howell writes.  (Kimberley French / 20th Century Fox)

So are genial Catholic priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), obnoxious vacuum salesman Laramie (Jon Hamm) and annoyed hippie Emily (Dakota Johnson). They congregate in the lobby, impatiently hitting a bell that summons no one.

When desk clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman) finally shows up, it appears he’s trying to hide something — and maybe the guests are, too.

Miles expresses doubt about a man of the cloth staying at a place that has clearly seen better days and which isn’t known for the righteousness of its clientele. Father Flynn replies, with reassuring firmness, that it’s all the more reason why his presence is required.

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The wisdom of both statements will soon be put to the test — and at this point it’s wise to cease with exposition. There will be other guests arriving, among them a smirking individual named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) who summons comparisons to a notorious cult leader from 1969.

Watch for cameos, including a scene in a recording studio where an uppity young record producer, played by a Canadian actor/director, sharply criticizes Darlene’s singing. Is that who we think it is? Why, yes, it is.

Bad Times at the El Royale offers many such pleasures of recognition and intuition, even as it begins to become a tad ungainly as the long night heads into a shattering day. You’d better believe that this is one hotel that doesn’t offer an express checkout.

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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Bad Times at the El Royale is a suspenseful dive down a rabbit hole