A group of strangers thrown together by happenstance in a secluded location where murder and mayhem bubbles beneath the surface is a plot convention that has been used by everybody from Agatha Christie to Quinten Tarantino.
In the hands of writer/director Drew Goddard (the filmmaker behind the meta-horror masterpiece “The Cabin in the Woods”), this convention gets a fresh coat of paint, some stylish redecorating, and an infamous new address.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a tightly plotted thrill ride that reveals itself with the same measured, clever suspense of a magician turning over his cards.
The bad times take place at a hotel on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe in the late 1960s. The El Royale is a once-glamorous getaway that has seen better days and its clientele reflects that fact.
On a fateful, stormy evening, the guest list at the El Royale consists of Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a motor-mouthed traveling salesman; Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a kindly old priest; Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a promising young singer; and Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), a flower-child with a bad attitude.
Of course, no one is exactly what they seem, all the way down to the El Royale’s polite, unassuming desk clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman). Things get off to a rocky start as motivations are slowly revealed and before long things are completely out of hand— and that’s all before the arrival of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a Charles-Manson-like cult leader who comes to reclaim something he’s lost.
Even as I acknowledge how great the screenplay is, a ton of the credit for the success of “Bad Times at the El Royale” goes first and foremost to the excellent cast. Hamm is as reliable as ever and Bridges, who could play this part in his sleep, goes ahead and gives it his all anyway and crushes it out of the park.
Hemsworth proves he’s more than just a pretty face even though his character repels buttoned-up shirts the same way oil repels water. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, I suppose. The volatile, sinister charm he brings to Billy Lee helps carry the movie’s third act. Even Johnson, free of dreadful “Fifty Shades” dialogue shows she’s capable of some depth and nuance.
But, the most impressive turns in “El Royale” come from a pair of fresh faces.
Pullman (son of actor Bill Pullman, to whom at times he bears an uncanny resemblance) sneaks up on you as the morally-conflicted Miles, who surprisingly becomes the heart of the movie. That said, it is Erivo who is the movie’s soul. As Darlene, she boasts a world-weary resourcefulness of a person who has found herself in more than her share of ugly places. Keep an eye on Erivo, she’s destined for bigger and better things.
As a screenwriter, Goddard definitely knows how to turn the screws, but he deserves credit as a director for drenching this movie in time and place. Stylistically, he doesn’t get too showy, but the Motown-infused soundtrack alone gives this movie an undeniable level of coolness that is hard to resist.
There are plenty of clichés bantered about in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” but they are done with a wink and a nod as they get played around with and then brushed aside. More than anything, this is a fun, enjoyable movie that makes no apologies for what it is. All bad times should be so good.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” is rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content, and brief nudity.