Bad Times at the El Royale, B-
Rated R, 141 minutes
"Bad Times at the El Royale" is an overlong but fun thriller with a few good things up its sleeve. Directed and written by "The Martian's" Drew Goddard, an unknown stage actress steals "El Royale" from its more well-known co-stars, some of whom are intent on chewing the scenery. The last goes on too long and a bit awry, with Goddard too intent on telling everyone's backstory, but you won't be able to look away.
Set in 1969, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers who find themselves at the El Royale, a novelty hotel at the border of California and Nevada. But as the strangers — including a priest (Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Emmy-winner Jon Hamm), a Southern gangster ("50 Shades of Grey's" Dakota Johnson), and a former singer (Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo, outstanding here) — settle into their rooms, they discover that something strange is afoot inside and outside the hotel.
"Bad Times at the El Royale" is an uneven yet occasionally memorable thriller, that can be bloody fun in the right moment. Goddard isn't a stranger to this type of craziness, something he honed in his directorial debut, 2012's cult horror comedy "The Cabin in the Woods." Like that film, he weaves together various storylines and characters, until they all come together in a smashing finale.
There are a handful of things you'll walk away from "El Royale" remembering: the music, the sets and the electrifying, standout performance from Tony-winner Erivo ("The Color Purple") as a 60's backup singer named Darlene down on her luck. Her amazing voice alone could carry the film, and she voices some classic 60's tunes, showing that a star is in the making. Fortunately, most of her scenes come with Bridges, in another strong performance as a fading priest who isn't who he says he is.
On the downside, "El Royale" is about 30 minutes too long, showing a lack of efficiency with Goddard's writing and direction. From the overlong first scene, which takes up a good 15 minutes of the movie, it's clear that Goddard is in love with his own dialogue and scene formation. It doesn't help that each character must be given a backstory when this could've been accomplished much easier; it's too bad that the most interesting character in the film, Lewis Pullman's Miles, a young, naive concierge at the hotel, has minimal footage.
Still, Goddard has assembled a fine looking film, with the El Royale hotel, evoking a nice late '60s feel, a lovely supporting player in and of itself. "Bad Times at the El Royale" ends with a bang, though it leaves some of its conspiracy subtexts dangling faster than you can say JFK. For what it is, it's much too long, but you'll still have some fun.