You might know Bad Times At The El Royale as that movie where Chris Hemsworth toys with our thirst and the Best Chris rankings by wiggling about with an open shirt and jeans so low-slung it’s probably illegal in some states. You might know it as writer/director Drew Goddard’s star-stuffed follow-up to the brilliant horror-comedy Cabin in the Woods. But you soon will know it as the movie that proves Cynthia Erivo is a big damn star.
The Tony award-winning Broadway luminary makes her film debut in Bad Times At The El Royale, playing one of seven strangers whose lives fatefully collide over the course of one wild night at the extravagant, titular hotel. In this 1960s-set film, there’s plenty of booming charm on display, be it from Jon Hamm’s garrulous salesman, Jeff Bridges’s befuddled priest, and Dakota Johnson’s intriguingly abrasive hippie. But with a beguiling voice, vibrant vulnerability, and flashes of steely resolve, Erivo’s aspiring chanteuse walks away with this movie. She’s not just well-matched to her (more) famous scene partners, but also manages to spur tension by providing a soulful soundtrack of Motown songs, belted out in character in moments of uncertainty, subterfuge, and outright terror. It’s a performance that’s full-bodied right down to her diaphragm, and it’s so rich with texture, strength, and tenderness that Erivo will leave you trembling.
This is not to play down the contributions of her co-stars. Goddard has a gift for casting and brings together a dizzying ensemble that crackles onscreen in sequences of slick suspense and breathtaking bursts of violence. Hamm brings a spiky bravado, Bridges a smirking gruffness, Johnson a salty defiance. Cailee Spaeny, who made her film debut earlier this year in Pacific Rim: Uprising, brings an unhinged coquettishness as a curious kidnapping victim. As a flustered desk clerk, baby-faced Lewis Pullman makes mounting anxiety contagious as a quiet night at this decaying resort crumbles into mayhem and murder. Then, into the party crashes Hemsworth as a swaggering cult leader who is as dangerous and deranged as he is undeniably sexy. It’s a bold niche-break for the ever-affable Marvel star, and one he manages with chilling aplomb. And for bonus Pajiban fun times: The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, plus Nick Offerman pops by to do a bit of woodwork. (Presumably, because Goddard wants us to have good things and be happy.)
Come for the star power; stay for the enthralling mystery. Goddard guides us through each occupied suite, then into the hidden passages of the hotel and the dark pasts of each of its guests. Secrets are unearthed. Sparks fly. And Bad Times At The El Royale barrels into a climax that is sensual in its suspense and exhilarating in its unpredictability. From his work on Cabin in the Woods, The Martian and The Good Place, Goddard clearly knows how to navigate a winding and wildly entertaining ride. At 2 hours and 21 minutes, Bad Times At The El Royale does get a bit logy in its third act. But it’s hard to care when the journey is so rich with charisma, from its compelling cast of characters, swooning ’60s soundtrack, a production design alive with color and panache, and some truly masterful visual storytelling.
The film opens on a hotel room, into which a man (Offerman) enters with a red-leather valise and a gun. With one static wide-shot, we’ll watch this man as he paces, then settles, finally setting down the gun. Without a word, he turns the radio on. As the music drowns out any other sound, he moves the bed away from the wall, unrolls the carpeting from the floor, and carefully pries loose several floorboards so he can deposit the valise below. Jump cuts race us through this hours-long process and its clean-up. Then the man turns and stares at us in the audience. But he doesn’t see us; he just adjusts his tie. We are clearly hidden behind a mirror, spying. And so Goddard, in one simple, elegant scene, sets up the hotel’s shady reputation, the movie’s McGuffin, and the element of voyeurism that will be key throughout. How this scene concludes warns audiences of the dark and spontaneous world this mystery unfurls within. All of it shows masterful storytelling, and that’s just the beginning.
There’s also an electric bite to the dialogue. You can almost hear the performers’ teeth crunching into it with relish as they sneer lines like, “You spend your life getting shook, you learn to spot a shaker,” and “You just happened to be sneaking there, being creepy, and got a face full of buckshot for your troubles.” Then, comes moody monologues lit by bonfire, scathing rejoinders dripping with blood, tearful confessions, a defiant speech from this movie’s shining star that may make you want to stand up and cheer, not only for its seething verve but also the painful contemporary relevance.
Ultimately, Bad Times At The El Royale is a sumptuous, sexy, squalid, and supremely suspenseful ride, full of twisted turns, gory detours, and one hell of a final destination. You won’t want to miss it.
Bad Times At The El Royale was the closing night film of Fantastic Fest. It opens in theaters October 12.
Header Image Source: Twentieth Century Fox