Shit happens. Get the whiskey.
'Oddity' was the word used by one UK film critic to describe both July release Hotel Artemis and this more recent arrival. Both times the word was applied in a negative sense, as though a project's refusal to be categorised neatly is a bad thing. Well if 'oddity' means consistently surprising, then Bad Times at the El Royale is certifiably odd. It's also intriguing, funny, violent, shocking, philosophical, soulful and more moving at points than you might ever expect (just one of those many surprises).
What to tell without giving too much away? The setting is late '60s, the titular hotel a once-impressive, now failing establishment that straddles the California-Nevada State-line (you can book a room in either state). As a location it's full of secrets, much like the scattering of guests who show up. There's Father Daniel Flynn (a sandpaper-voiced Jeff Bridges), who bumps into struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) in the parking lot. Add to them talkative vacuum-cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm of Mad Men fame), closely followed by a taciturn hippy (50 Shades' Dakota Johnson), who won't even sign her own name in the register. The only employee on premises is the eager-to-please Miles (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill). The gang's almost all there.
But what is the truth behind the El Royale? Who are its guests in reality and what is the purpose of each for being there? And - most importantly - what will be the consequences of their lives intersecting? The answers come in a slow, enticing drip-feed that is never predictable and often devilishly delicious.
Right from the movie's opening sequence - a superbly staged piece of jump-cut storytelling - it had me hooked. The colour scheme is rich, right down to the thick red line that divides the hotel in half, and the central location itself is a masterpiece of faded grandeur. From its jukebox emanates a stream of period classics to fuel the drama. As for the characters - they move into place like chessboard pieces, each given room to breathe and develop, gradually revealing what lies hidden. Writer/director Drew Goddard has developed his skill as a tale-spinner through episodes of Lost and cunning horror movie The Cabin in the Woods. He brings it all to bear here in a puzzle-box story that takes its time, but ultimately keeps on giving - through pithy dialogue and breath-taking twists.
He's aided all the way by his uniformly strong cast. The seasoned players are great - kudos once more to Bridges in a character turn to relish - while the younger crew like Johnson and Pullman really get to show their mettle. Brit newcomer Erivo provides heart and soul as Darlene, and just wait for the arrival of the Avengers' own Chris Hemsworth in a performance that proves him one of the most charismatic screen actors around today.
There's undeniably a lot of Quentin Tarantino in Bad Times - a claustrophobic central location, a non-linear timeline sliced into chapters, a narrative peppered with flashbacks, those sweet tunes - yet there's also much that's all Goddard's own. Take the location's wonderful weirdness (reminders once more of Hotel Artemis) and a crafty use of time and place to provide whole layers of subtext. There's also a genuine sense of depth, dire consequences to each violent act and characters for whom you end up caring more than you'd anticipated. As I mentioned, surprises.
For all I've said, I hope I've said little. The El Royale is a place best visited with the most blurry of expectations. Pack a suitcase, keep your wits about you, and get ready to check out at a moment's notice. But don't think for a second it'll be easy to leave...
Moments of laughter, shock, suspense and revelation - 'righhhht - so that's what that's about!'
Where Are the Women?: Great stuff from the two I've name-checked, plus from youngster Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising; here she's better, because Bad Times is better).
Ed's Verdict: 9/10. A ambitious and brilliant conundrum, the pieces of which fit together in hugely satisfying fashion. Don't expect neat answers to every last question though. A little lingering mystery can be a very good thing.