“Bad Times At The El Royale” sees “Cabin In The Woods” writer/ director Drew Goddard indulging his inner Tarantino as he sets up this lurid, pulpy neo-noir tale of deceit, desperation and death in a faded motel, still trading on its glamorous past and novelty location.
In 1959, a man arrives at the El Royale hotel to bury a bag of money under the floor of one of the rooms only to be shot dead by another man who searches the room but cannot find the money. Ten years later, Catholic priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), arrive separately at the El Royale and meet sleazy, smooth-talking vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm), as well as the hotel’s jack-of-all-trades Miles (Lewis Pullman). Hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) is the last to check-in as the TV news reports on a string of brutal murders in Malibu, likely the work of sadistic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).
While “Bad Times At The El Royale” may see Goddard in very Tarantino-esque mood, there’s a healthy measure of Hitchcock thrown in for good measure. It’s a heady, intoxicating mixture, expertly intertwining the mysteries and secrets at play, building and building to a tense and richly satisfying climax. Performances across the board are excellent, even Dakota Johnson, an actress I remain to be convinced by, but the standouts are Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo. Bridges seems really engaged with the material this time, a far cry from his phoned in performances in the likes of “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” and “Seventh Son” while Erivo provides the magnetic heart of this twisted, darkly comic thriller. The moment when she, as a poor black woman in the 60’s speak truth to the power of Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering, entitled manchild is worth the price of admission alone.
Thrillingly unpredictable, “Bad Times At The Hotel Royale” keeps its mysteries tight and focussed and the tentacles of the plot wrap tighter and tighter around the bag of stolen money and a mysterious film of a famous and important hotel guest caught in flagrante delicto (the identity of the man on the film is never confirmed, a delicious homage to the contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, although in this case you can pretty much work it out). For a brief moment, I started wondering if the oft-mentioned but never identified ‘management’ would be revealed to have supernatural origins but thankfully the movie keeps its evil very mundane and is all the more chilling for it. It’s arguably slightly too long, padded out by the admittedly impressive but narratively redundant repeated sequences of Erivo’s Darlene Sweet signing a capella but that small grumble aside, this is a sensational sophomore effort from Goddard, confirming him as a director to keep an eye on.