Film review: Bad Times At El Royale

Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times At The El Royale
Damon Smith

AT LEAST one guest of a themed hotel, which straddles the state line between California and Nevada, checks out of their room in a body bag in writer-director Drew Goddard's stylish 1960s-set thriller.

Bookmarked into meaty chapters, Bad Times At The El Royale employs a fractured timeline and narrative sleights of hand to piece together an intriguing jigsaw puzzle of subterfuge, self-sacrifice and reckless abandon.

Goddard was deservedly Oscar-nominated for his adapted screenplay of The Martian, and here he confirms a flair for snappy dialogue and eye-catching set pieces.

His script withholds vital information about characters and their motives, and Goddard confidently revisits key sequences from multiple perspectives to illustrate how the grim fates of hotel patrons intersect.

There is a delicious unpredictability to characters' demises, sometimes without warning.

At least one tense interlude relies on incredible luck and split-second timing to thicken the air of intrigue but it's hard to resist the slippery charm of Goddard's ambitious design even when the film strains credibility.

Ten years after a patron of the El Royale hotel is shot dead in his room, the ailing establishment welcomes a sudden influx of guests.

Gifted singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) is determined to seize her chance at stardom after thankless years as a backing vocalist for pitiful pay of $12 a session. She checks in and encounters a forgetful man in a dog collar, Fr Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who needs a room for the night to rest his weary head.

"This is no place for a priest," warns concierge Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), whose jittery demeanour suggests something is awry at the El Royale.

Darlene and Daniel are joined by smooth-talking vacuum cleaner salesman Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and a taciturn hippy chick, Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson).

These strangers head to their respective rooms and later, Fr Flynn shares a drink with Darlene and reveals he is slowly losing himself to dementia.

"I wake up some days and I can't remember who I am," mournfully confesses the priest.

Elsewhere, Seymour makes a shocking discovery and Emily carries out a mercy mission to extract her younger sister (Cailee Spaeny) from the clutches of menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).

Bad Times At The El Royale drip-feeds us tantalising morsels of information right up to the explosive final chapter entitled Maintenance Closet.

Hemsworth plays effectively against type as a man of twisted faith while Tony Award-winning musical theatre star Erivo brings a melancholic melody to her sassy soul sister.

The running time flirts with two-and-a-half hours but writer-director Goddard confidently sustains tension.

He leaves us teetering on the edge of our seats with explosions of graphic violence, including one shotgun blast to a head that spatters the camera lens with blood and gore. Take cover.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (15, 141 mins) Thriller/Drama/Romance. Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth. Director: Drew Goddard.

RATING: 7/10

Released: October 12 (UK & Ireland)

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