It begins as Darlene Sweet, (Cynthia Erivo) a lounge singer pulls up to the El Royale in her four door Studebaker, some time in the seventies. The prelude begins with the Beach Boys singing “26 Miles” ten years earlier on the juke box as a single man drives up to the hotel, takes a room and proceeds to remove the floor boards to make a space where he hides a red bag. Shortly later there is a knock at the door and he is killed with a shot gun.
Next comes Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who arrives ten years later at the same time as Darlene Sweet. Nearly everyone in the story is not quite who they appear to be and that allows the script to meander and keep the audience guessing as to what is happening and what is next.
The hotel is on the California-Nevada border, half is in Nevada where gambling is allowed the other half is more expensive because it’s California. The one employee is Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) a man who looks very young, takes drugs and has many secrets about the doings at the El Royale. He is the bell hop, desk clerk, manager, cleaning person and the bar tender. He is alone, in a business which is no longer popular by the seventies.
Dakota Johnson who plays Emily shows up looking innocent, but quickly discloses a large number of guns. Jon Hamm’s Laramie or Dwight is an FBI agent who probably is looking for the loot that is under the hotel just as Father Daniel who we quickly gather that he is not a priest. Laramie is in direct contact with J. Edgar Hoover who refuses to allow any deviation from the plan even when a murder is witnessed.
It all weaves back and forth, why is Emily there and what will her presence and fire power bring to the location. Miles is a crushed personality who only divulges his dark background actions in pieces as the story moves on. But we do know early that the hotel has a hidden hallway that allows viewing inside the rooms through a one way mirror and that cameras are in the hallway.
The script moves back and forward in time giving us just enough information to hold attention, something like the process in The Hateful Eight. Often characters take sudden violent action which is unexpected and some loose their lives in the process.
When Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworthy) a cult leader arrives the film stalls. His actions are blatant and ugly and lack the sophistication of the other sides of the plot.
We learn there is only truly decent person in the script and I guess writer Drew Goddard determined only the pure should survive, but he breaks that rule a little bit to sweeten the final scene.