Bad Times at the El Royale

Year: 2018
Production Co: Goddard Textiles
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Drew Goddard
Producer: Drew Goddard
Writer: Drew Goddard
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, nick Offerman, Shea Whigham

This is like one of the rash of self-consciously cool homages/rip-offs that came along in the wake of Pulp Fiction, a crime thriller with a self-referencing chronology and a cast of cooler-than-thou types where everyone's on the make or double crossing everyone else in between bouts of bloodshed.

I realise how dismissive that sounds, because the movie is more fun than that. The story, if not the concept, is original and enough to keep you interested until the end.

To describe the plot would be to tie yourself in so many knots you'd end up giving away something crucial, and writer/director Drew Goddard has constructed not just the tale but the way it unfolds very precisely.

A priest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a guy who says he's an on-the-road salesman (Jon Hamm) arrive at the El Royale motel, a watering hole that's seen better days, the novelty of it straddling the border between Nevada and California in a mountain pass once making it famous.

Hamm's character tells the arriving duo he's been waiting around forever despite ringing the bell and it seems like nobody's there. But eventually a clerk arrives to tend to them all and they retire to their respective rooms.

But before the movie even confirms it you're sure they're all there with ulterior motives. Even when new characters emerge, like the young hippie woman (Dakota Johnson) dragging a bound younger girl from her car and into one of the rooms, it's with a fanfare of danger and violence. The salesperson proves himself to be anything but when he starts investigating his own room for wiretaps, and it leads him to a secret corridor behind the bedroom mirror that gives him a view into every occupied room of the hotel.

He goes outside to the payphone to report in, revealing himself to be an FBI agent reporting directly to director J Edgar Hoover. Meanwhile, the priest and singer and enjoying a drink in the empty lounge when things take a similarly dark turn. We see the priest spike her drink, but when he turns to give it to her she clocks him with a bottle, knocking him out.

The FBI agent sneaks around the hotel looking for whatever evidence he's tasked to find, but instead finding himself on the wrong end of the female kidnapper. The clerk reveals that the secret passageways were intended to film and blackmail public figures. The priest's true backstory (and the reason he's there) is revealed, and the young kidnap victim turns out to be a rescue from a dangerous cult.

When the charismatic cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) shows up oozing so much charisma and malice he might be an allegory for Satan himself, everything comes to a head. The entire company are held hostage to his psychosis, and with the stash of money that set up the whole tale still up for grabs, anything can happen.

It's shot and designed beautifully, evoking the time and place completely, and everything from the performances to the story and the fractured telling of it show real talent in every area of the filmmaking craft. We've just seen this kind of best-hits compilation of other genres and film movements before.

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