Closed box movies turn my gears. Why? Because you have to be crystalline clear as to your purpose and your agenda. You have a point – A – and you have to have a point – B – that you are deftly delivering us to in order to make your claustrophobic environs work. Which, in turn, requires brilliant writing.
Well, today, Drew Goddard – writer and director of films and TV shows like, Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods, The Martian, World War Z, Lost, etc etc – has brought us a closed box nirvana worth considering. So giddy. And it’s funny, because the trailer, the posters, the marketing pitch just struck me as so stupid. And I only saw the movie because of Goddard’s track record. (Yes, I understand it has an amazing powerhouse cast, but I’d rather the ideas be explosive. But you know that already. RIGHT?!? Trust me then. Gah.)
So, Bad Times at the El Royale is the story of seven (of course it’s seven) random star-crossed acquaintances, whom are not who they seem to be. Maybe they are chasing after buried fortune. Maybe they are all out here, in this crazy hotel that straddles Nevada and California, simply to try and double cross and kill each other. TRAILER!
So go see it. It’s in the theaters. Hurry up. I want to talk with you about it dangit.
Bad Times at the El Royale Walk Through
Let’s do a quick, (super quick – let’s just forget the fact that I have 3 single spaced pages of notes), walk through of the movie, and then talk about the themes and possible meanings of the movie. The movie opens with Felix (played by Nick Offerman), burying the money from a botched bank heist in the floor of the El Royale, a hotel with a strange distinction of sitting on the border of both California and Nevada (metaphor anyone?).
Ten years later, three people converge on the hotel with three different purposes, and hidden realities. We have the FBI agent, Dwight Broadbeck, or Laramie Seymour Sullivan (played by Jon Hamm). He’s there to find the compromising recordings of someone who stayed in the hotel. The “Priest” Father Daniel Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges), who might actually be Dock O’Kelly, who is in search of his brother’s hidden money. And we have the singer, Darlene Sweet (played by Cynthia Erivo) who has lived her life putting up with con-men and hustlers. Oh, and Miles. We can’t forget Miles (played by Lewis Pullman). The drug addict with more than his fair share of past. Soon these four are joined by Emily (“Fuck Off”) Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and her hostage sister, Rose (played by Cailee Spaeny). These two have run from the grip of a controlling cult and Emily is certain to make her sister see the light.
The initial lightening rounds of cageyness and deception ends with Miles crashed out in a drug high. Dock discovering the hidden observation rooms into each room. And Laramie being killed and Miles being shot by Emily when Laramie tries to intervene with Emily’s abduction. Dock tells Darlene about the money, and agrees to split it fifty/fifty if she helps him retrieve it from her room.
Eventually, the money, Emily, Rose, Darlene, Dock, Miles and a new player, the head of the cult, Billy Lee, which Emily and Rose ran from (played by Chris Hemsworth), all convene the ending of the movie in the hotel lobby. Billy Lee is holding court with two cult cronies he brought with him, as he is trying to understand what is going on here. What is the money about. Why did Emily steal Rose away and run for it. Why is there a dead guy in one of the rooms? Soon enough though, in a game of red and black on the roulette wheel, Billy Lee kills Emily (was she betting on Red turning up, or against red turning up!? Because I have a lot of opinions on this front.)
When Dock and Darlene are threatened, Billy Lee is unable to help Dock or Darlene because he has killed too many people already (while in Vietnam). But when Billy Lee moves to kill Dock, Miles shoots Billy Lee dead, as well as his two cult henchmen. But he leaves Rose alive. Which, turns out, was a mistake, because she stabs him in the chest, and then is shot dead by Dock. Which, I’ve sort of lost track of the players… I think that leaves us with Dock and Darlene uninjured, and Miles dying. Darlene tells Dock to HELP HIM, and Dock and Miles have this amazing conversation:
Miles – “I’ve killed so many people, I’ve lied, I’ve stolen.”
Dock – “Do you seek absolution for your sins?”
Miles – nods
Dock – “Do you give him the time you have remaining?”
Miles – “It’s too late.”
Dock – “No, It’s never too late.”
Miles – “I’ll try to be better.”
Dock – “Miles Miller, you are forgiven.”
And with that, we fade to black, and when the lights come up, we are in Reno at 6:00 the next day. Darlene is going on the stage to sing. And there is Dock, watching from the sidelines like he said he would. She sings… lights go out…
The Characters and Their Backstories
Please remember, that characters, and backstories mean everything in movies. Everything. Each character was tipped as good, or bad, by their backstories and by their actions heading into the ending. We knew who they were and where they were ultimately going (pardon the pun) before the movie ended. The main seven characters were critical to the direction the movie headed and influenced the various ducking and weavings that the screenplay would take.
Dock O’Kelly – He and his brother, Felix, were bank robbers. When Dock went to jail for the robbery, Felix buried the money in the hotel room like they agreed. Dock, hellbent on coming back for the money, has softened after his time in prison, and realizes that he may have prioritized things incorrectly in his life.
Darlene Sweet – Quick to defend herself, and not one to put up with bull crap, Darlene is a singer just trying to figure out how to scrape by. In her back story we see that she has been taken advantage of by the music studio execs that think themselves more important than they are.
Emily Summerspring – She and her sister wandered into a cult. Emily’s sister Rose was enthralled from the get go. But Emily just wanted to be free. And so, one day, Emily kidnaps her sister, and hauls it away as fast as she physically can. But Emily, is out for herself and her sister before anyone else.
Dwight Broadbeck – is an FBI agent, that has gone to the hotel under the assumed name of Laramie Seymour Sullivan. Dwight has been sent to the hotel, under express orders, to find the compromising material that the owners had Miles record through the two-way mirror into one of the hotel rooms.
Billy Lee – The cult leader. He hates all organized religion. He hates anyone that prostitutes themselves out to society and the world at large. Billy Lee is particularly pissed with Emily for her stealing Rose, his girl. And he will do anything to get her back.
Rose Summerspring – is the highly impressionable sister of Emily, that has fallen head over heels in love with Billy Lee. It’s because of Rose that Billy Lee knows where Emily has taken her.
Miles Miller – the hotel manager, attendant and all around service support staff for the hotel. He also happens to have been a sniper in the Vietnam war with an extraordinarily impressive kill count. He also has a really impressive heroin habit.
The Hotel Is a Character Too
The hotel is an actual character in this particular movie. With more than enough backstory and latent ambiance to fill the A-star role in lesser films, this hotel had a lot going on. But did you know that the hotel was based on a real hotel? A hotel that had an even more storied past than this movie stand in. History with mafia mob bosses, murders, actors, famous musicians. The hotel was cheekily named, the Cal-Neva Lodge, and it too sat on the California/Nevada border. In the fifties, the hotel was frequented by members of the Kennedy family, including JFK as well as his brother Robert. And it was even rumored that JFK used the hotel in order to carry on a never ending stream of extra-marital affairs. Sinatra spent a lot of time there, and eventually purchased a majority stake in the hotel. And it is said that Sinatra repurposed the prohibition era smuggling tunnels to allow the mob to move in and around the property without anyone noticing. Heck, Marilyn Monroe stayed there a weekend before her death even!
So yeah, the hotel is an important part of movie’s backstory. And while the two way mirrors are fictional, they definitely are not too far from the truth in this wild and crazy location.
More importantly, when a screenwriter takes a normally well populated location, and shuts it off completely? Pay close attention. For example, where are all the extras? Where are the people in the parking lot, the other rooms, the bar? The only people we interact with are the specific characters of the story. Well heck! Now that you mention it! It’s usually because you are locked in someone’s mind, locked in purgatory. Or hell. Or some sort of judgment room awaiting our final outcome. So not only did Marilyn Monroe sleep here, but also, everyone that is here now may just be at risk of going straight to hell. High enough stakes for you?
The Roll of Religion in Bad Times at the El Royale
Wait, what? Religion? Yeah, religion. You heard me right. I just told you that the hotel is most probably a stand-in for purgatory, or some sort of judgment waiting room. And now I’m enquiring as to the roll that religion plays in this particular film. You are big boys and girls, you can discuss religion without melting on the spot. Trust me. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Goddard had to say about this question in an interview he did recently:
“About a month after finishing the script I really looked at it and went, ‘Oh my god, I’m clearly exploring my Catholic childhood in this film. I’m clearly exploring the role religion played in my life as a child, and the role that spirituality plays in my life now.’ And in asking those questions and exploring those issues, it was one of those things that is not conscious, but once I stepped back and looked at it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is the heart of this film.’ The spiritual questions that are evoked in the film. It did dictate so much of our approach as we were designing this film.”
See? So, after walking through the seven key characters (you think this number is coincidental?!?) of this movie, we already know who is going to survive the encounter, and who will not. Every single character that was serving their own interests and no one else’s, died. And the two characters that achieved grace and redemption? Well, yeah, that would be Dock O’Kelly, and Darlene Sweet. Why? Because about half way through, they realized they needed to stop attacking one another, and start supporting each other. They both also helped to support Miles in his time of need, as he was dying. They walked him through his last rights, even in spite of the fact that Dock wasn’t actually a priest.
The rest of the characters were decidedly in it for themselves. Billy Lee and Rose? His girl, his pride, his spiritualism, that was at stake. Emily? While definitely, she was looking out for her sister, it was only for selfish reasons. She ultimately trusted no one, and refused to see the good in anyone else around her. And Dwight? Another selfish character, sent by the FBI to do a job, and to tell them everything he sees and hears. Not an ounce of altruism in his entire body.
So Is the El Royale Purgatory?
Yes. Yes it is. Trust me on this. It really is. But what does Goddard – the writer and director of El Royale – think it is?
“I did not set out to make this a movie where there’s lots of lingering genre questions. To be fair, we are dealing with very aggressive spiritual themes, and those themes are intentional. So I think the answer is there’s a middle ground. I certainly did not mean it to specifically be, ‘These people are ghosts. These people are in purgatory.’ But it’s fair to say I’m thinking of this in a much more operatic sense, for lack of a better word.”
I am guessing that Goddard means that it is a stylized, iconic version of the idea of a purgatory. So yeah, it’s a judgment holding tank. An area where one’s good and one’s bad, all comes to the forefront, and based on these things, you either move on to hell, or upwards to heaven.
Or what if… and I’m just thinking out loud here… what if, the movie is a dream state for the living folks that carry these backstories around with them. So, what if, Dock is still living, but he’s dreaming or daydreaming about his life thus far. Maybe his brother has hidden the money, maybe not. His brain is just logically extrapolating the current fix he finds himself in. Maybe Emily is lead on this living nightmare, and she’s considering the hell she and her sister find themselves in within the cult they are stuck in. Or more likely, what if it is Darlene that is central to this fugue state experience? She is warring with herself over what to do with her career and these men that spend too much time talking.
Another weird thought – It could very well be that this story has nothing to do with these specific characters at all. Goddard’s opera comment has me thinking. Maybe the movie is more of a fable. Goddard has created for us a fable to warn us about certain things and certain behaviors. Goddard has already admitted that the movie carries a lot of his Catholic background deep inside the crevices of this movie. But he gives us strong archetypes for behavior he believes to be acceptable.
Who Was In The Film Reel??
One of the most important unfinished plot points in the movie was this reel of film that was going to be used to blackmail someone important. But who is in the reel? The movie Bad Times at the El Royale was set definitively on October 7th, 1970. How do we know? Because of the television, which showed a clip of Nixon’s “Cease Fire” Vietnam speech. With that knowledge, it will help us walk the question of who was in the film reel backwards from there. We know that the person died within the last year or so based on comments in the film about the person. We also know that he was extremely famous as everyone that looked at the film recognized him immediately. Billy Lee knew right away that the film was worth way more than bank heist money.
I researched back through some of the big names and big players that might fit the bill and came up with a lot of possible names (Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, Sinatra, etc etc) but none of them died in 1970, or 1969. JFK, the most famous person connected with this hotel, passed away back in 1963… which seems too distant for the comments made. The two most obvious individuals that fit the bill died in 1968. And that would be Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. MLK was not ever known to visit the Cal Neva. But RFK was known to have been there quite a lot, even to have purportedly slept with Marilyn Monroe there at the hotel. So after digging and digging? I’d say that the individual in the film reel is most likely Bobby. But if you have a candidate that we can consider here I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
The Ending of Bad Times at the El Royale Explained
But what about the actual ending man?!? Got it. I got you. So as the kill count goes up, we watch as player after player bleeds out and dies. Right? Until we are left with Miles, Dock and Darlene. Dock and Marlene help float Miles’ boat across the river Styx, and then we are left with these two great characters. The Priest and the Singer… and here’s what Goddard had to say about the ending with these two:
“I was plotting the film, and I started with seven people, and thought, ‘I’ll see where the story wants to take me.’ As I kept sort of thinking about the next scene and the next scene, Darlene kept stepping to the forefront. As I step back, the movie is very spiritual, and the spirituality comes in the form of art and the artist, and the act of singing and the act of creating art among difficult times. So it felt very organic to have her be the focus of the film. In order for her to finally get the appreciation that she deserved, we needed someone to appreciate her, we needed someone to say, ‘Oh, I am actually going to appreciate you as you are finally.’ That dovetailed very nicely with the priest who was finding his new faith.”
The movie is about redemption and rebirth, rebirth and forgiveness. We see Darlene putting up with load men her entire career and then also in this movie. And she quietly shoulders the load and keeps moving. And in the end, Goddard has written her an audience of one. The Priest. And it is this picture that solves the final riddle of the film. Dock, realizing he had lost his way, has found his way back after encountering Darlene. And Darlene, has continued the path all the way. Like I said, it’s about salvation. Hope to find one’s way out of the purgatory we find ourselves in each day. A hope for a better way of going about life.
And with that, I’m shutting this run on sentence of a blog post down. Still have nine more things I could keep talking about, but, instead of being a Chatty Kathy with the string on the front, I’m putting this thing to bed. Comments? Let’s cover the loose ends in the comments. Perfect.
Edited by, CY
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