Strangest Feeling. . . You look around you’re someone else, and you don’t know who that is…
– Father Daniel Flynn
I’ve done horrible things.
– Miles Miller and Father Daniel Flynn
Bad Times At The El Royale begins with a curious scenario. Five strangers meet at a hotel simultaneously. A singer, a priest, a hippie, an undercover agent, and the hotel’s only employee. Of these five people, four are running from a disaster or seeking redemption. The singer, Darlene, has been fired by her manager because she refused to give into his immoral demands to sleep with her. The priest, Father Daniel Flynn, is actually a former crook, who is looking to retrieve money that was secretly stored at the hotel years ago. Emily Summer, the hippie, is attempting to save her sister, Rose, from an evil cult. The undercover agent, Dwight Broadbeck, is following orders from the government to investigate and clear out the hotel. The employee, Miles Miller, is simply attempting to live with the sins that he’s committed in the past.
After their meeting, these five strangers go through their own ordeals, but all of them, excluding the agent, once again find themselves next to each other, facing the ultimate evil of Billy Lee, the cult leader that Emily is fleeing from. In this climax lies the question that the film is attempting to answer: Can a new life be built from the ashes of a past one wishes one could leave behind? Can the evil within ourselves be purged and done away with in order to find redemption?
Dwight Broadbeck’s scenario offers a curious answer when considering this question. Out of all the characters, Dwight has no hidden evils from which he’s attempting to escape. The only secret he hides is that he’s not actually a cleaning products salesman. His talks with his wife and daughter on the phone reveal that he is a caring father and husband. Details are further given about his moral character as he refuses to sit by and let a kidnapping go unhindered, despite direct orders from his superiors.
As audience members, when Dwight sees events unfold in room 7, we are not yet privy to certain information, but a little bit further into the film and we’re shown the truth: Emily is not kidnapping but actually rescuing her little sister, Rose. When Dwight comes literally knocking on her door, however, she gives him no chance to hear this explanation, he’s downed with a shotgun blast that rips through him and obliterates the mirror that he’s standing in front of, scarring Miles who is standing behind him.
Why should Dwight be killed when he’s one of two innocents of the main five? How does his death make thematic sense? It can be argued that the danger of secrets, which being with the FBI, Dwight is naturally involved in led to his death, but I believe the film is displaying the cost of what taking a stand against evil sometimes incurs. Not all rescue attempts in life play out with good on the winning side.
This same idea plays itself out through Emily and Rose’s narrative. Through a flashback scene, we see that Emily and Rose were raised by an abusive father. We see the after-affects of Emily’s recent beating at the hands of her father, but it’s strongly implied that Emily killed her own father. The two flee from Alabama to California, where they fall in with Billy Lee.
Billy Lee’s introduction is a telling one. When he’s first introduced the sun falls on him in a way that makes him seem like a Christ-like figure. His predatory behavior towards Rose, including asking her to come for a naked swim with him reveals his cunning and sadistic nature. The villain enamors Rose and persuades Emily to join his cult before his motives become clear to her.
In a disturbing sequence, Billy gives a speech about how society forces you to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, God or no God in a game in which they secretly are the victors. He asks Rose to pick between the two sides:
Boots choose, are you good or are you bad?
Now she’s cheating because she knows what answer I’m looking for.
To illustrate his point, Billy pits Rose and another girl against each other, forcing them to choose between “right” and “wrong” in their battle. Rose’s violent victory is enough to wake Emily up to the fact that Billy is a monster, but Emily is too late. So much so that even after she rescues Rose from the cult, Rose takes the first chance she can get to inform Billy of their location.
As Billy arrives, Father Flynn and Darlene have just finished finding the hidden money, and Flynn has found a roll of tape that shows secret footage of a famous public figure that’s worth more than all the money combined. Billy takes the money, ties up Flynn, Darlene, Emily, and Miles, and forces the group to play a deadly game of roulette. Emily chooses red, which leaves Miles with black. The ball lands on black, and Billy kills Emily.
Darlene then stands up to Billy in a speech that encapsulates his character. When Billy Lee asks Darlene if she knows what’s on the film, she replies:
Let me guess. It’s some man who talks a lot. He talks so much that he thinks he believes in something. And really just wants to fuck who he wants to fuck. I’ve seen it enough. I’m not even mad about it anymore. I’m just tired. I’m just bored. Of men like you. You think I don’t see you for who you really are? A fragile little man, preying on the weak and lost.
I’ve heard it, and I don’t care. I’d rather sit here and listen to the rain.
After Darlene sings for Billy, Father Flynn takes advantage of the moment and headbutts Billy. A fracas ensues, with Flynn attacking Billy and Darlene begging Miles to help them. Miles at first is reluctant to help, saying that he can’t “kill no more people.” A flashback shows that he was a sniper in the Vietnam war and that he killed 123 people. But then, Miles takes his own stand, finds redemption, and kills Billy Lee and his thugs. Father Flynn kills Rose, but not before she stabs Miles.
As Miles lays dying, Darlene asks Flynn to absolve him of his guilt. In a moment of redemption for both of the characters, Father Flynn guides Miles through the forgiveness of his own sins. Even though Flynn isn’t actually a priest, his role in absolving Miles of his guilt redeems him of his own darkness. Darlene and Flynn then gather up the money, throw away the film, and leave the El Royale.
As a film, Bad Times at The El Royale argues that the game Billy Lee claims society is playing is not a game at all. It’s a serious battle between the good and evil natures within each individual. Billy Lee’s claim to not take a side is a lie. But the characters who have committed evil deeds in the past are able, with their actions, to find redemption from their past sins. As Father Flynn says, everyone’s done horrible things. Only those who take a stand and willingly choose to side with good can find redemption for themselves.