"Bad Times at the El Royale" is bold as the dramatic neon lights illuminating The El Royale Hotel, a once-hopping Lake Tahoe getaway straddling the California-Nevada border. Seven strangers, each at a crossroads, converge here over one long and stormy night, and not all will be living to see the dawn of morning. Riveting and expertly constructed, this sophomore effort of writer-director Drew Goddard (2012's "The Cabin in the Woods
") doesn't quite match the go-for-broke imagination of his debut, but it does feature the same blazing confidence in style and form. A sizzling neo-noir cousin of 2003's "Identity
" and 2015's "The Hateful Eight," the film sidesteps the cookie-cutter in exciting ways; as the narrative unravels, it is near-impossible to predict where things are going. If, at first glance, the destination doesn't quite provide the revelatory earthquake one anticipates, look closer. There's more under Goddard's sleeve than meets the eye. The journey, meanwhile, mesmerizes every step of the way.
The year is 1969, and as President Richard Nixon speaks on television about the war being waged in Vietnam and a news bulletin blares about a gruesome double homicide in Malibu, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) cross paths in the parking lot of the El Royale. Daniel, a pastor from Indiana, and Darlene, a lounge singer on her way to a gig in Reno, exchange pleasantries as they prepare to check in. Both are running away from something and toward something else, and they are quickly joined by other hotel occupants with secrets: fast-talking traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm); chic, no-nonsense Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson); and youthful, by-the-book concierge Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). As day turns to rainswept night, a key discovery involving invasive surveillance throughout the rooms and within the bowels of the property will lead to a desperate fight for survival. By the time the seductively sinister Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) arrives, all bets are off.
Watching "Bad Times at the El Royale," one gets the distinct impression of being in the company of greatness. Everyonewriter-director Drew Goddard; the dazzling ensemble cast; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (2017's "The Greatest Showman
"), whose quixotic lensing draws one in instantly; composer Michael Giacchino (2018's "Incredibles 2
"), whose orchestrations prove indelible; and production designer Martin Whist (2013's "Warm Bodies
"), the hotel locale he has brought to life becoming a central character unto itselfis working at an elevated, impassioned level. The narrative, all the more pleasurable because it keeps surprising as it unravels, moves in lockstep with its exquisite look and feel, a kaleidoscope of bold and moody colors, shifting timelines, and revolving points of view. At 141 minutes, the film gives itself room to breathe even as it expertly clutches the audience's attention and doesn't let go.
In a breakthrough feature acting debut, Cynthia Erivo (2016 Tony winner for "The Color Purple") astonishes. The intensity, depth and nuance she brings to Darlene Sweet, a young black woman who has struggled to make it in the music business under the thumb of misogynistic, power-hungry men, is matched only by her rapturous voice. Erivo sings a handful of songs throughout, slaying each one with touching power and vulnerability. One bravura unbroken set-piece wherein Laramie eavesdrops on the hotel guests through a corridor of two-way mirrors as Darlene rehearses The Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart of Mine" is one of the most forebodingly magical cinematic moments of the year. There are other miraculous sequences as well, none more unforgettable than Darlene's late showdown against threatening alpha-invader Billy Lee. Her stinging monologue, a verbal unleashing of her pent-up frustrations on the pathetic, manipulative men who have kept her down for too long, is the cathartic rallying cry the film needs most, and Erivo delivers it to perfection.
The rest of the performers are terrific, as well, each of them embodying a character not quite who he or she initially appears to be. Jeff Bridges (2017's "Kingsman: The Golden Circle
") has a tricky role as Father Daniel Flynn, an older gentleman of the cloth losing himself to a neurodegenerative disease, and he superbly wavers between sympathetic and untrustworthy. Dakota Johnson (2018's "Fifty Shades Freed
") is gloriously uninhibited as Emily Summerspring, earning laughs before the sobering reality of her motives come into play. Jon Hamm (2018's "Tag
"), not often the warmest or most inviting of screen presences, is surprisingly captivating as mover-and-shaker Laramie Seymour Sullivan. Lewis Pullman (2018's "The Strangers: Prey at Night
") impresses as hotel concierge Miles Miller, shielding a darker side and a whole lot of guilt over his past. And Chris Hemsworth (2018's "Avengers: Infinity War
"), who enters the fray midway through as Billy Lee, is a force with which to be reckoned; even if his role as a whole was a wasted one (it's certainly not), his gyrating dance to Deep Purple's "Hush" would be satisfying on its own.
At a time in major studio filmmaking when branding is everything and commercial propertiesfrom comic-book movies to established franchises and sequelsare paramount, it is something of a minor miracle the enthrallingly original and multilayered "Bad Times at the El Royale" has seen the light of day. A deliberately woven tapestry deliciously toying in different tones and genres, the picture marches to the beat of its own deviously methodical drummer. At once vicious and darkly funny, cold-blooded and feelingly humane, this musically inclined corkscrew thriller looks the part, feels the part, and most definitely sounds the part; the classic '60s soundtrack (featuring The Ronettes, The Box Tops, Frankie Valli, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, The Four Preps, among many others) brings yet another soulfully textured element to its haunting cauldron. Above all, the film's luminous effect resonates and lingers long after it has ended, subtly but surely connecting the past to the present-day era's incendiary, cult-like political landscape and long-overdue cultural "Me Too" movement in a way that makes it rousingly, urgently timely. It is often said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Darlene's active decision to ultimately speak her truth, to risk everything in exchange for finally being heard, is crucial, transforming "Bad Times at the El Royale" from a film of dread-inducing portent into one of profound hope and perseverance.