Check in for in­trigue

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Culture - By Da­mon Smith


t 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 Os­carnom­i­nated for his adapted screen­play of The Mar­tian, and here he con­firms a flair for snappy di­a­logue and eye­catch­ing 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 US dol­lars a ses­sion.

She checks in and en­coun­ters a for­get­ful man in a dog col­lar, Fa­ther 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, Fa­ther 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-anda-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.

Dakota John­son in Bad Times At The El Royale, left, and Chris Hemsworth, right, who plays the cult leader

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