There’s a fine line between good and evil for everyone…
Four disparate characters stay at the El Royale hotel, a hotel staffed by one employee as their lives, secrets and lies converge to firey repercussions.
Bad Times at the El Royale | Official Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX, 20th Century Studios
Darlin Husband and I finally checked in to watch Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), a film set in a hotel at the time of Nixon and the Vietnam War. This film is has been on the to watch list since I don’t know when. I only wish I’d seen this film earlier with the compelling twist-filled plot, gratuitous use of flashbacks (but in a productive way), a groovy kind of soundtrack and fabulous performances from everyone.. and I’m talking not just the cast.
You will find in this film nobody is as they first seem, with some with surprising character traits and where the relevant backstories lead to a darker tale. Even the El Royale hotel has a shocking story to tell. Some of the plotlines told in this film are loosely based on real-life events of this time. This film was for the most part set in 1969 which was a time of murderous cults with charismatic leaders, government fueled conspiracies and unconfirmed rumours, some dubious characters and a hotel on the border between California and Nevada.
At first, there are only four guests in this hotel, each with their reasons for staying there. Like all hotel guests in reality and fiction, they have secrets they hold dear and those parts of their life that are relevant only to them. Again like reality, even the hotel’s only employee has a past. As well as the characters’ explanatory flashbacks, many of the scenes set in the hotel are replayed from the point of view of other characters who have observed them.
When these five characters become six, this sixth “guest” is seen as the catalyst to the later, darker storylines, this character unwittingly or on purpose (you decide) prompts the “bad times” to begin… so if you are sitting comfortably, I’ll tell you more…
In 1959, a man in a trenchcoat and trilby (Nick Offerman) rents a room in the El Royale hotel. In a scene without dialogue, he enters his room and is observed to have just his holdall and gun. He shuts the curtains, puts on the radio, moves all the furniture, rolls up the carpet and removes some of the floorboards. He places the holdall under the floorboards. And puts everything back the way it was in the room. After he answers the door, he turns and walks away. This second man shoots him in the back…
10 years later, a Catholic priest, Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and a young black singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) talk in the hotel car park. Both comment on the red line dividing the hotel into two with one side in Nevada, the other in California. Each state has its own separate keys, hotel entrance and rooms.
Once inside, they find a guest Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) – a Southern, travelling hoover salesman – making himself at home. He’s a man of contrasts. He loud and offensive but also chivalrous insisting the other guests check in first. Sullivan is extremely insistent on having the honeymoon suite.
Darlene gets the attention of the only employee Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman). Miller – a timid looking young man – gives his opening orientation spiel about this hotel. He tells how the hotel is now a bit run down but tells that in its heyday it was the place to be before it lost its gambling licence. It is also told by both Miller and Sullivan that the Hollywood and American elite stayed there.
Flynn appears to be a bit vague about what room he wants out of two rooms, then leaves it to the toss of a coin. Sweet takes the room he doesn’t take, with both taking rooms four and five. Then after a car pulls up to the hotel in an erratic fashion, a young woman wearing sunglasses and trendy but hippyish clothes enters the hotel. She checks in alone and isn’t interested in Miller’s orientation spiel or any of the others. She doesn’t give her name and writes “Fuck off” in the ledger after the three other guests’ names.
After Sullivan enters his desired suite, he locks his door and opens one of the many blue boxes he has brought with him. He removes a hoover and its packaging. This then reveals a secret layer with a briefcase in it. Sullivan then uses the equipment – from the briefcase – and takes the phone apart as he phones home dropping his accent as he says the Lord’s Prayer. He is clearly a man with morals, and this was not apparent in his earlier scenes.
In the phone, Sullivan finds phone tapping equipment. He purposefully finds much more surveillance equipment dispersed throughout the room. He also examines the large mirror on his dressing table. After retracing the steps to his room outside, he returns inside and as he passes a switched-on television, a news show is reporting on two murders in Malibu. Sullivan picks a lock as he enters the staff quarters.
He easily passes Miller’s room where we note this employee appears to be both a Catholic and passed out in a drug-induced stupor. Sullivan finds a corridor with a two-way mirror for not just his room but also this set-up is seen for the other guests. He finds that he can also listen in to their rooms with the flick of a switch. There is also a video camera set up.
Sullivan observes the other guests through their two-way mirrors, they do not notice his presence. Father Flynn is removing the floorboards in his room. Sweet is placing her blankets on the walls and she then sings. In another room, the hippyish woman drags in a young girl who is tied up, gagged and appears unconscious from the boot of her car. Sullivan is distracted for a minute as he sees a tape in the video camera, not noticing this hippy has also got a shotgun.
Then Darlene Sweet’s story is told… She was the backing singer in an all-girl group, her sleazy music producer made a pass at her saying that if she responded in the right way, that it would help her career. It’s not made clear she rebuffed his sexual advances… but she’s now a lounge singer.
Back in the present day, after some hesitation, Sweet accepts Flynn’s offer to join him for dinner. The pair fall into a nice rapport, she talks about her singing and Flynn tells her that he has diagnosed with memory difficulties. He’s on his way to visit his family, and she has a gig in a Reno bar.
His memory is shown by flashback, as he is seen examined by a prison doctor, and his diagnosis and parole are discussed. Back in the film present day, Flynn adds a substance to her drink with the intention to knock her out, but she sees him do this and smashes a bottle over his head.
Sullivan legs it to a payphone outside in the rain, and he drops his accent once more revealing himself as Special Agent Dwight Broadbeck. He phones the FBI and tells J Edgar Hoover of his findings in the hotel. Hoover requests him to tamper with all the cars so the guests can’t leave until the FBI equipment and a videotape is secured. Broadbeck is given direct orders told not to interfere with the kidnapping…
Another flashback has the young teenage kidnap victim seen on a beach. She has a holdall, and she is chatted up by a mysterious older man named Billy Lee. We cant see his face because of the sun and sounds like a kind and charismatic kind of fellow. He nicknames her Boots, and it is inferred that Boots is a runaway.
Sullivan / Broadbeck then tampers the cars but ignoring his orders knocks on the door of the hippyish woman’s room. She has been revealed as Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) and that her kidnap victim is, her wee sister Rosie (Cailee Spaeny). Emily and Rosie are on the run from an evil man with Emily wanting a fresh start with her wee sister.
Broadbeck then kicks down the door and punches Emily. Emily remembers her and her sister’s abuse from their father. He then tries to untie Rosie and Emily shoots him dead. His body hits the mirror which breaks, and then a groaning is heard.
Sweet however has found out that she can’t leave the hotel after she observes Broadbeck tampering with the cars and then his killing from afar. Emily is seen leaving the room by the two-way mirror to investigate the groaning noise. Then left alone and untied Rosie phones someone and she tells this person that she is with her sister and awaits his arrival…
This story is one with twists and turns. The story’s characters are set up well with flashbacks of their motivations and their detailed origin stories, but only telling what you needed to know. I liked how the characters each had their secrets, and some characters were surprising in a positive way and some were seen more negatively.
The story of the hotel, the tape and the reasons for its surveillance equipment was explored with these both relevant to the future plot. There are no red herrings or McGuffins in these storylines as everything and everyone has a part to play in this thriller. Even the man with the holdall at the start of the film is noted to be in the film at a later stage.
There is much speculation online regarding the symbolism of the state line which divides the hotel in two. Many believe this differentiated between the good and the bad characters. I noted that there are also those characters who are on the dividing line and those who (literally) swing over the precarious line between the two. These characters were often moulded as good or bad depending on their past events, but the present-day events sometimes changing our perceptions of them for good, bad or ugly reasons.
Scenes were beautifully set up to emphasise characters and their personalities, vulnerabilities and beliefs. More hints are given to the contents of the tape that Broadbeck couldn’t find as we learn more about the hotel and its rumoured guests. We also learn more about the characters through the soundtrack that accompanies their presence. Coggan in an article for Entertainment Weekly HERE quotes the director and films screenwriter Drew Goddard, who states;
“Music is almost like the eighth character in the movie,” Goddard explains. “It serves the function of a chorus in a Shakespearean play. It actually is a key part of the emotional fabric of the film.”
Flynn played a gentle, vulnerable priest with self-confessed memory problems. His character was seen to have a darker side, as you see tried to drug Sweet, but why? Who is Rosie expecting at the hotel? More is told after a tell-all flashback, telling more of these enigmatic Summerspring sisters. The film explores reasons for Miller’s drug use, Broadbeck’s FBI presence and the sudden presence of Chris Hemsworth…
However, at times, I felt it often seemed like tongue in cheek. Hamm was an FBI agent who (looked like Archer) has an alias of a man with a hammed-up Southern accent and who sells hoovers (presumably after advertising them to his customers’ Mad Men (2007-15) style). Dakota Johnson is a character who was physically (and possibly sexually abused) by a strong male character (in 50 shades possibly?).
Chris Hemsworth was a character, that seems like a God to others with that body to match (Thor??). Erivo, of course, shows in her musical numbers scattered throughout this film that she is much more than a lounge singer as in real life she is a Tony Award winner.
More of Hemsworth’s part in this film was seen in flashback scenes where he is seen shirtless and dreamlike in the field of yellow flowers. This now-iconic scene and his entrance in this film, where he dances with an unbuttoned shirt to a Deep Purple, now in the film’s present day, where he had me at howdy…as I found this old heart of mine was weak for Hemsworth.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
The Broadway Blogathon No (Tony Edition)
This review was entered in Taking Up Room’s Broadway Bound Blogathon (Tony Edition) Chris Hemsworth in Tourism Australia: Dundee – The Son of a Legend Returns Home, Five Hotties, Were Neighbours Now Hollywood, Thor Ragnarok, Neighbours, Vacation, Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge and K-PAX, Jon Hamm in Five Hotties, Bridesmaids, Family Guy and Archer. Nick Offerman in The Lego Movie and City of Angels.