REVIEW / THRILLER
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
142 minutes/Now showing/3.5 stars
The story: Set over one night in 1969 at the El Royale, a faded hotel straddling the California-Nevada border, the story begins with four strangers: singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), salesman Laramie (Jon Hamm), a tight-lipped woman Emily (Dakota Johnson) and priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) - all checking in. As the hours tick by, it becomes clear that these people are not who they say they are, nor is it anyone's aim to have a few hours' rest before moving on.
The less said about the story, the more fun viewers will have with this twisty tale of greed and deceit.
In the best tradition of the ensemble-driven, single-room thriller - think Panic Room (2002) or Reservoir Dogs (1992) - the El Royale is where plans will be hatched, alliances made and betrayed, and blood spilled before dawn breaks.
Writer-director Drew Goddard clearly loves the mechanics of the board-game structure. It is a closed universe defined by a set of rules that, if observed correctly, can be extremely satisfying.
He broke into feature-directing with The Cabin In The Woods (2012), a teens-versus-monsters horror fantasy taking place mostly in one space with its own particular set of rules.
As in Cabin, shadowy external forces act on the men and women at the lodge.
In 1969, the Age of Aquarius is curdling into the era of the serial-killing cult. The Federal Bureau of Investigation under President Richard Nixon acted as his surveillance arm, employing dirty tricks against his enemies.
There is so much to enjoy in the first two acts. There is the wordless, cold open, featuring actor Nick Offerman, that lays out the triggering event; the mixing of Grammy winner Erivo's velvety vocals into the plot (viewers are likely to pull out their mobile phones immediately after watching the movie to look for her on YouTube, as this reviewer did) and the stylish editing.
Each character gets a chapter that explains why he or she is at the El Royale.
Then Chris Hemsworth appears. The Australian actor, who worked with Goddard in Cabin, is tragically miscast as a charismatic psycho-path.
Shirt unbuttoned to the waist - that image is on the movie poster - with arms wide open like a rock star when he walks, Hemsworth is supposed to ooze malevolent magnetism, but all he manages to look like is a male stripper in training.
Goddard, you should have known better than to cast Thor, when the person you really needed was Loki.
That third-act misstep aside, this is still one tense and stylish crime thriller, filled with small delights and grounded in the politics of its period.