Bad Times at the El Royale

A failing singer, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a priest and two sisters on the run check into a motel/casino that straddles the Nevada-California state line in 1969. The place, run down and creepy, has none of the glitz, glamour or gaiety of the famous spots in nearby Reno. And something is very deeply wrong at the El Royale, wrong and dangerous.

This mystery has Hollywood omniprofessional Drew Goddard in the driver's seat as writer, director and producer. Goddard directs in only his second time out in that role. He has a long sheet as a writer and producer, getting an Oscar nomination for the script of The Martian. He did direct the well regarded comic/ horror film The Cabin in the Woods. Cabin also featured Chris Helmsworth, also in a major role here.

Helmsworth, best known for his convincing role as the deity Thor in the Avenger films, has a versatility that we do not appreciate enough. Here we believe him totally as magnetic cult leader. Jeff Bridges plays the priest. A familiar face with more than 90 TV and film credits, actor John Hamm appears as the salesman. We have seen a good deal of Dakota Johnson in the three Fifty Shades films. Here she plays a hard case and the young but excellent Cailee Spaeny plays her much younger sister. Stage and screen actress Cynthia Erivo steals the show the singer, her acting and voice are superb.

But things are not at all what they seem at the El Royale. Imagine mystery of Murder on the Orient Express joined with the vivid, wounded characters of The Hateful Eight conducted by Charles Manson. The brilliant writing brings us into the scandal charged era with a deliberate care that I found welcome.

Everything about this movie, script, scrumptious acting by all comers and truly expert, classic direction comes together to make a very fine, if very violent and adult, movie.

This vastly entertaining film runs for a long two hours and 21 minutes. We enjoy every one of them. Made on a slender $32 million budget, El Royale has a hard R for drugs, a bit of nudity, vile language and shocking violence. I liked it a lot and rate it as a strong four sawblade film.

The El Royale has a real life model, the Cal Neva Resort. The Cal Neva has associations with gangsters, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy brothers, scandal, movie stars and high times. Frank Sinatra owned the place for a number of years but sold out before the fictional events in the movie. Billionaire Larry Ellison now owns the resort. As the guests check in, watch the wall of photo memorabilia.

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