These are tough times for rank and file Catholics, the laity forced to endure one distressing headline after another about the clerical sex scandals and attendant cover-ups. But sometimes, positive reinforcement can come from the strangest places, and the new movie “Bad Times at the El Royale” is hitting theaters amid the firestorm with a potent and touching reminder of the good that the vast majority of good priests do in the world and, more importantly, the power of forgiveness to bring peace, solace and redemption to us all.
But don’t worry if you’re not a Catholic, because “Bad Times” is also an incredibly well-done thriller completely aside from those plot aspects. While the ads and trailers for “Bad Times” make it appear like a Quentin Tarantino-style exploration of evil that wallows in shocking violence for laughs rather than any sense of redemption, it manages to be both a riveting unpredictable film and one with a deep sense of humanity.
It focuses on six mysterious people who converge on the El Royale, a hotel that sits directly on the state line dividing California and Nevada and is long past the glory days, back when Dean Martin would stay there during visits to Lake Tahoe.
Among them are an elderly priest named Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an African-American singer named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), two mysterious sisters named Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Ruth (Cailee Spaeny), a vacuum cleaner salesman named Laramie who’s actually an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) and a charismatic creep named Billy Lee who has a strange connection to the sisters (Chris Hemsworth). They are all greeted by the front desk clerk Miles (Lewis Pullman), who also serves as the hospitality staff and the bartender, since he’s the only employee on-site.
Miles is hiding the fact that the El Royale is riddled with bugs, and not the living kind of critters that often populate low-grade motels. Rather, the rooms are filled with hidden listening devices and the mirrors are actually of the two-way variety, with a secret network of hallways enabling Miles and his unknown bosses to spy upon and film their guests for unclear nefarious purposes.
On this night, tensions ratchet up more than normal because Laramie is ordered to ensure that no one can leave the premises, and he proceeds to disable everyone’s car engines. Soon, everyone’s secrets start to come out — the most important of which is that Father Daniel is actually a bank robber looking to dig up his hotel room floor and retrieve the bagful of money his brother buried there a decade ago before promptly getting shot to death.
When Billy Lee finally arrives, things get emotionally and then physically explosive. But what shines through the most in this remarkable film is that instead of wallowing in darkness, it points strongly toward the light with one of the most powerful redemption stories in memory.
The reason for that is that when one of the seven main characters receives a mortal wound and is fading fast, they ask for Father Daniel to hear their confession in the hopes of dying with peace and the opportunity for salvation. The problem is that they don’t realize that the man claiming to be Father Daniel is not who he says. But at that moment, Daniel has to decide whether to tell the truth and devastate the dying person, or do as another character requests and help him die in peace by playing the role and helping him at least feel absolved.
The resulting scene is beautifully played, expertly written and is an astounding reminder of the power of forgiveness and grace. The performances in this film are all first-rate, particularly Bridges as a man who has done bad things but rises to the occasion when given the chance to do good. Erivo is also outstanding as Darlene, particularly in a masterful six-minute sequence in which she sings the pop classic “This Old Heart of Mine” a capella to cover up the noise of Daniel tearing up the floor in search of the money bag as a sinister character watches through the mirror.
Goddard’s writing is crisp throughout, with a great sense of tension and a lot of darkly funny lines to go with its moments of dramatic power. He gives this 141-minute movie time to breathe and wrap audiences in its mysterious embrace with long but riveting scenes that are often quiet before exploding into whiplash bursts of noisy action. A single unexpected punch inflicted by one character upon another roused the audience into shocked applause unlike nearly any film I’ve ever seen.
That ability to make audiences not just think, but feel, deeply is a rare thing in these days of noise-driven blockbusters. The characters at the El Royale may be enduring bad times, but moviegoers seeking original filmmaking will find plenty of good times at the theater watching this film.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” Grade: A