Gather an eclectic group of people in an intriguing place, spill a few secrets, commit a few crimes and watch sparks fly. It's an approach that's worked for Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and even the board game Cluedo, and it works a treat for Bad Times at the El Royale. Contrary to the film's moniker, you can expect a rollicking good time with this mystery-thriller, which has devilish fun taking both its sharp narrative and its motley crew of characters on a twist-filled ride — and taking the audience along too, for that matter.
On a sunny 1969 day that's soon to turn stormy, Lake Tahoe's El Royale Hotel welcomes four guests to its distinctive surroundings. Checking into the spot smack-bang on the border of California and Nevada are smooth-talking vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), jobbing singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), man of the cloth Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and a woman who writes "fuck you" in the ledger instead of her name (Dakota Johnson). Strangers crossing paths for the first time, each has their own reasons for being there, not that anyone is forthcoming. As they assemble in the lobby beneath photos of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and other bigwigs who've stayed on the premises, the young, distracted manager Miles (Lewis Pullman) gives them the spiel: they can slumber in either U.S. state, but rooms in California cost $1 extra and you can't drink in the Nevada lounge, or gamble either since it lost its gaming license.
The hotel's divided layout aside (and yes, a line literally runs right through the middle), much about Bad Times at the El Royale initially feels familiar. The basic setup, the use of title cards, the shifting perspectives and fractured timelines, and the air of foreboding in a fading abode all could've stepped out of countless other movies. Thankfully, derivation isn't the name of the game here, although there's one particular film that writer-director Drew Goddard owes a debt to. It's his own last big-screen release, The Cabin in the Woods — and while the filmmaker isn't trying to make the same flick twice by any means, he approaches this slightly over-long 90s-style crime throwback in the same way as his hit horror movie. Both share a sense of playfulness that's highly engaged with their chosen genres, neither follows the routine path, and each comes packed with an energy that's thoroughly infectious.
Chris Hemsworth plays a part in both films, although just how the star and his frequently bare chest fit into Bad Times at the El Royale's narrative is best discovered by watching. But, by re-teaming with Goddard, he's once again immersed in an engrossing story that's spun around a fantastic setting — complete with shooting, spying, scandals, bank robbers and cults. While treating a movie's location like one of its characters might be commonplace to the point of cliche, this lively, pulpy and often amusing noir-esque picture wouldn't be anything without its central lodge. From the diorama-like opening scene that buries a secret beneath the floorboards, to roving camerawork that stalks every hidden nook and cranny of the place in a striking fashion, the El Royale proves a slick visual playground for blood-splattered revelations and reversals.
Along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Greatest Showman), roaming the hotel's halls is a well-chosen group of actors, helping to overcome what could've been the film's greatest flaw. Casting can often be a movie's biggest spoiler, instantly signalling that a high-profile name is destined for a more sizeable role than their seemingly small part first indicates — but even when that remains true here, talent such as Bridges and Johnson craft fascinating characters who are more than the sum of their flaws, failings and deceptions. Firmly and delightfully in Kurt Russell-meets-Patrick Swayze mode, Hemsworth is charming to watch in a more straightforward part, however it's Erivo who's having the best time of all. Turning in a performance as powerful as the soulful tracks she's often singing, the Tony and Grammy winner only made her cinematic debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. With Bad Times at the El Royale, Erivo checks in to a darkly entertaining affair, and certain big-screen stardom as well.