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Bad Times at the El Royale review - wildly original thriller will keep you guessing til the end

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Verdict: a fantastically entertaining, unpredictable thrill ride. Go to the cinema, take all your friends.

From the screenwriter/director of The Martian, Drew Goddard, comes this wildly original, edge of your seat thriller.

In a cinema-scape full of adaptations and sequels and franchise films, Bad Times at the El Royale comes as a breath of fresh air. When’s the last time you saw a film and had genuinely no idea what was going to happen? Bad Times will keep you guessing until its last moments.

The cast is of course the main draw of the film, and Jeff Bridges is the shining jewel in the crown. On top form, his character Father Daniel Flynn isn’t what he seems. Balancing sharp wit with incredibly moving moments, Bridges’ extraordinary range is on full display here. With all the characters hiding various conflicting motives, Bridges manipulates the audience’s sympathies with flair.

The emotional backbone of the film is his connection with Cynthia Erivo’s character Darlene Sweet — a down on her luck singer. Erivo’s Tony winning glory is utilised to great effect, not only in her incredible singing voice, but in her extraordinarily commanding presence. She balances Bridges on screen without breaking a sweat, and delivers the climactic speech of the film with a steely dignity that exudes such power it’s a wonder the cinema didn’t break into spontaneous applause.

Audience reactions indeed are a key part of the viewing experience — no less than three times did the cinema full of veteran critics burst into gasping laughter — whether shocked or relieved I won’t spoil for you.

The film is structured around revealing the backstories of the characters gathered at the El Royale hotel on this unfortunate night. Following one character per chapter allows for some truly innovative perspective shifts on various scenes. The foundation of this film is, if anything, subverting expectations. From victims to villains and everything in between, the characters are awarded a fantastic complexity.

Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson are the most underwhelming of the lot, but not necessarily through any fault of their own — they simply have the least interesting roles when compared to everyone else. 

The breakout star of the film is the relatively unknown Lewis Pullman, who plays the hotel’s timid only staff worker Miles. The character starts the film as easily ignorable and ends it anything but. A flooring twist sees him deliver one of the best moments of the film. 

The final figure, who menacingly dominates the third act, is Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee. A larger than life presence, both sensual and sinister, Hemsworth really is making a name for himself by taking on adventurous roles like this. His superhero sex symbol status adds a particularly alluring dimension to the character which works deliciously well, and he certainly has fun with the role.

Set so specifically in 1969, everything from the costumes and styling to the set decoration and music choices so perfectly create the atmosphere. With the Vietnam war hanging like a spectre over the whole film and various shadowy figures pulling the strings in the background, the politics of the film are perhaps its most subtle aspect, but certainly remain insistently and quietly shaping the whole thing.

When the action hits, it hits hard, with startling violence used sparingly to great effect. The whole film is so tightly controlled — a well oiled machine that doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do at all. A fantastic good time. 

Bad Times at the El Royale hits cinemas on October 12th. Watch a brand new clip below.

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