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Bad Times at the El Royale Movie Review

Motel California

As sometimes happens in the life of a reviewer, I've got mixed feelings about "Bad Times at the El Royale," the latest from Drew Goddard ("The Cabin in the Woods"). My film-lover's heart was lost by the end of the crafty/quirky opening scene of this epic, uber-stylish neo-noir, even while my inner critic was keeping a distance, trying to channel the average moviegoer and consider what would appeal and what would dismay. If you regularly read my reviews you'll know that I don't usually write in the first-person, but every once in a while a movie comes along that compels me to provide a more personal perspective - and so it is with "El Royale."

I wasn't a fan of Mr. Goddard's "The Cabin in the Woods." I found it transparently manipulative, an empty exercise that elevated style and pretty much jettisoned substance. With "El Royale" the writer/director has leavened his mix, and while this twisted tale of six overlapping vignettes that all reach a shocking denouement at a glitzy 50s-era motor lodge is a technical balancing act, the heavily-plotted mechanics don't crowd out the characters. Instead, it's a near-perfect mix of plot and persona.

Said plot kicks off with a lone traveler (Nick Offerman, "Hearts Beat Loud") arriving in a motel room and burying a satchel under the room's floorboards. Flash forward 10 years and the motel, the El Royale, has seen better times but still draws the occasional guest intrigued by its fading Rat Pack-era allure, or just in need of a cheap night's sleep.  The latest arrivals include traveling lounge singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), occasionally addled priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges, "Hell or High Water"), and slick, plaid-jacketed salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm, "Baby Driver"). They tentatively bond over the lack of service in the empty lobby, though when nervous clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman, "Battle of the Sexes") finally does appear, Mr. Hamm's Laramie is quick to abandon chumminess and loudly insist on being booked into one particular room.

In fact, late-arriving guest Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson, "Fifty Shades Freed") is the only one who isn't picky about which room she gets. After a spiel from Miles that includes some of the El's history and quirks (the motel straddles the California-Nevada line and that affects room prices - sort of; it's also the former favorite haunt of gangsters, politicians, and the Hollywood elite) the guest disperse to the expected privacy of their rooms. But the El Royale has a hell of a secret: a voyeurs' passageway that runs behind the rooms and provides a full view of the occupants. We the viewers quickly become the voyeurs as we learn that each of the El's guests has a secret of their own, and a reason for being particular about room choice.

The voyeuristic reveal may be unsavory, but it sets up a fantastic sequence where one of the characters prowls down the passageway checking out what's going on in each room. The camera follows in a single-take tracking shot, made all the more impressive by the fact that the action in each room is unfolding in real time as the camera passes by - no cuts or edits here, friends. Add to that the fact that the sweet-voiced Darlene is singing throughout the sequence, providing a gorgeous diagetic counterpoint to the action, and it's truly an audacious filmmaking feat.

Equally impressive is Mr. Goddard's clever marshalling of the characters' backstories, which are briskly intermingled with the current action. These tales are revealed in a way that alters the viewer's perspective on each character and on the main storyline in turn as bits of action are revealed, shedding light on motives and end games. These secondary storylines swirl together like comingling currents then roar forward in a mad crescendo, sweeping all of the characters up in a final climax that's so giddily overladen it has to be seen to be believed.

This brash, risk-taking project is well-served by its cast, a mix of newcomers and familiar faces. Mr. Hamm ably toes the line between charm and cheese as the proverbial traveling salesman with a secret, Ms. Johnson is appropriately prickly as a woman on the run with a terrible burden on her shoulders, and Mr. Bridges adds another indelible portrait to his gallery of compelling characters. But there are two real standouts here, beginning with Chris Hemsworth ("Thor: Ragnarok"), who plays waaaaay against type as a creepily compelling cult leader who simultaneously summons up and eclipses Charles Manson as he tends a ragged flock of lost followers. Even more captivating is Cynthia Erivo, who comes seemingly out of nowhere to serve as the fierce heart of this dazzling, neon-bright adventure. She's got a golden voice that breathes new life into a handful of Motown classics, and a gaze that seems capable of finding the good in otherwise lost souls. Ms. Erivo's performance here is an absolute pleasure to watch.

There are plenty of people who won't like "Bad Times at the El Royale." It's almost 2 ½ hours long, and it's aggressively unconventional. There are times when the action feels out of control - though it never really is. The late reveal of one of the storylines is something of a deus ex machina, and not everyone is going to buy into the film's coda. But "El Royale" captures the late 60s zeitgeist in a way that's wholly unexpected and surprisingly astute: it's blood and anarchy against mid century modern tidiness. Plus, there's a sweet sentimentality here that manages to outshine all that flashy, rain-soaked neon. If you're in the mood for a different kind of musical, if you're looking for antiheroes instead of superheroes, if you want a less conventional peek at 60s history, give "El Royale" a shot - these times may be bad, but they're never boring.

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