The mind is an incredible gift from God. Cognition can lead us to some lofty heights. My academic career is evidence of this fact. It can also be our worst enemy, telling us something is real when there is no evidence of it. This is why we have therapy. In a more positive light, it helps us better to understand those invisible things that are real, like God. In other ways, it can make us forget things about which we would rather not think. I had forgotten that Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) existed until it was added The Legionnaire‘s list of films to review. I recall seeing the preview and thinking: hard pass. Now that I have viewed the film, I hope I can just as quickly go back to not remembering it.
The first scene in Bad Times at the El Royale features a person checking into a hotel room, moving aside the furniture, taking up the carpet, making a hole in the floor, dropping in a bag, and then replacing everything in its proper order. He is murdered shortly thereafter for his efforts. Does this take place at the title resort? Yes, but you would not know it immediately. Fast forward ten years and you have four strangers checking in to the seemingly abandoned El Royale. Remember my distaste for non-linear plots? Well, unlike Our Friend (2019), this is of the completely annoying variety! Why? Because instead of giving us the backstories of all the people involved in a logical order as they are introduced, they toss them into the middle of the narrative in as random a manner as the rest of the story. The only ones that have any real reason for being there is Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who is really Dock O’Kelly, a bank robber whose associate had hidden their ill-gotten gains at the hotel; and the hotel’s apparent sole employee, the young heroine addict/Vietnam sniper (which we learn aggravatingly at the end) Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). You might say that Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) has a purpose for getting a room there since instead of being the traveling vacuum salesman who he says he is, he is actually a Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agent. What is he investigating? I do not have a stinking’ clue! But he dies less than half way through the film, shotgunned by accidental tourist number three, Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). She could have stopped anywhere in her mission to kidnap her sister, Rose (Cailee Spaeny), from a murderous hippie cult led by Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Think Charles Manson and you get the idea, and yes, you read that correctly. So when Sullivan figures out that Emily has a woman tied up in her room, but not knowing the true nature of the situation, he kicks down the door and is rewarded with a double-barreled shotgun blast to the chest. How did he discover what was going on in the Summersrping room? Because he also finds out that the El Royale as a secret hallway with two way mirrors allowing people to surreptitiously view (and record) what goes on in the rooms. As Miles later describes, the hotel is owned by powerful people. Who they are precisely and why they are doing this, WE ARE NEVER TOLD! It just happens, and Miles is a sort of caretaker. The other person there is singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo). Again, just a traveler stopping to rest for the night, but she strikes up a little relationship with Father Flynn. She surmises fairly quickly that he is not a priest, but he manages to convince her that he is not so bad a guy, helped by the early onset of dementia. At least it seems that is how he persuades her to let him uproot her room in search of the missing money. Promising her part of the take probably helped too. They are all brought together, though, when Billy Lee arrives at the El Royale, called there by Rose who is still under his spell. Though Billy kills Emily and is about to shoot Father Flynn/O’Kelly, the day is saved when Miles gets a hold of the guns knocked to the ground during a struggle between the older man and Billy. Unfortunately for him, Rose stabs Miles in revenge before being killed herself. Anyway, Darlene goes on to sing in Reno and O’Kelly gets to see her perform as the film ends.
In describing Bad Times at the El Royale in the previous paragraph, I am afraid I might have misled you. I said there was a plot. There is none, and do not let the synopsis fool you. After an hour of watching it, I began to wonder if there was a point. The ending did not help. For example, I kept waiting for Sullivan to not really be dead. I mean, why else have an FBI agent present? Or the part where he phones the bureau and seemingly talks to J. Edgar Hoover about his activities? You might think that he was there to uncover what was truly going on at the El Royale. Maybe. If that was the case, then his death means that goal is never accomplished, nor are we told what was going on in some other manner. Hence there was no actual reason for him to be in the movie. His death or his motives for coming to the El Royale had little bearing on anything that happens in the film. Instead, what little screen time he has is spent tearing his room apart and finding a collection of listening devices, which also seem to serve no purpose. I guess they are part of the clandestine voyeuristic activities of the hotel, but we never see them used in this fashion. More generally, we are given a collection of people with no relation to one another about whom I mostly did not care. Father Flynn is actually the thief O’Kelly, Rose had apparently murdered somebody for Billy, Emily is rude to everyone except her sister, and Miles is a drug addict. That leaves Darlene, who is fine, I suppose, but the film spends the least amount of time with her. So if you have a collection of random strangers and do not give the audience a reason to like them, why should we care about the movie.
Having said that, there is one interesting scene in Bad Times at the El Royale, the one “good time,” if you will. Miles is beginning to feel regret over the crimes he committed, as a hotel employee and a Vietnam veteran. When O’Kelly shows up as Father Flynn, Miles spends a bunch of time trying to confess his sins to the false priest. Even at the end as he lays dying and he knows that O’Kelly is not a man of the cloth, he does not want to pass away with the weight of sin. Of course, the older man has no clue as to the proper way to hear a Confession, but he does stay by the younger man’s side and tells him that he is forgiven. I have had more than a few protestants ask me why I have to go to a priest for the forgiveness of my sins when it is only God that can absolve you. It is a fair question, and like so many aspects of Christianity since the Reformation it depends on how you interpret the Bible. Either way, the Church is clear that it is not the priest that has the power of absolution, but rather that comes from God. Sitting in the Confessional is sort of a way of organizing your thoughts and getting some advice on how to live your life better so that you can avoid the things that lead to sin. With Miles, his desire to be rid of the stain of sin is genuine, as is his confession. The rest is up to God.
This scene towards the end of Bad Times at the El Royale comes very close to being touching. It is mitigated by the carnage all around and the burning lobby they are in . . . and the rest of this stupid movie! If you like a plotless mess of a movie, then have at it. Hopefully it will fade from my memory soon.