We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the July 2022 edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme this month is "Voyeur." In addition to the excerpted essay below by Sarah Welch-Larson on "Bad Times at the El Royale," the new issue also features essays "KIMI," "The Conversation," "Adaptation," "Psycho," "Santa Sangre," "Videodrome," "The Lives of Others," and "The Bachelor" (TV series).
You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here. The above art is by Dani Manning.
A man (Nick Offerman) enters a hotel room. The door behind him stands off-center in the back wall, framing a car with 1950s tailfins until he closes it. He pulls his coat off in a smooth motion, begins moving furniture around, rips up the floorboards until he can hide the bag he carried in with him. The static camera watches him going about his business: first, the swift dismantling of the floorboards; then the cover-up; then the waiting, time passing in swift jump cuts set to “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” by The Four Preps. The man moves like an actor in a play, businesslike, unconscious of the fourth wall. He even straightens his shirt and checks his tie while staring down the barrel of the camera as though it were a mirror. We watch his secret business through that mirror. When he turns to tie his tie, we’re included in the business, part of the furniture, suddenly surreptitious spies instead of innocent watchers. We can see the man in his unguarded moments, and we see him at the moment of his death, too, shot in the back by a visitor whose face we can’t see.
It’s no secret that Drew Goddard is interested in stories about characters watching and being watched by other people; his work from LOST to The Cabin in the Woods to Daredevil is peppered with images of two-way mirrors and surveillance, detectives and secret footage. Bad Times at the El Royale takes this fascination and folds it into the very walls of the titular hotel: the El Royale has hidden passageways in its innards, with windows into the rooms disguised as mirrors. The rooms are wired for sound. Someone’s always watching. Voyeurism is baked into the set.
Bad Times does not approach the El Royale with the intent to implicate the audience. There’s guilt—nothing new in voyeur movies, as it’s so easy to titillate and then condemn the audience for being titillated—but the guilt belongs solely to the characters, and not the audience watching them. Bad Times isn’t interested in condemnation. The two-way mirrors in each hotel room function as an invitation for the audience to see these characters for who they really are, as opposed to who they say they are. We’re not tourists in their worst moments. We’re witnesses.
The five main players gather in the lobby of the El Royale, strangers reenacting the small drama from the opening vignette on a larger scale as they place their bags on the ground, explore their surroundings, try to get a sense for the other occupants on the scene. They’re all congenially wary; they all have their reasons for choosing to stay at the El Royale, things they’d rather not admit to each other. None of them are tourists or pleasure seekers. No one here is just passing through.
Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm, plus a broad Southern-ish accent and minus the smooth confidence of Don Draper) breaks the ice by ducking behind the bar to find some coffee. He would tear up the floorboards to find a cup if he needed to. He has a vacuum cleaner in his bags and a salesman’s attitude, showing his fellow guests around the lobby as though he owns the place. He’s careful to point out the red state line running the length of the lobby: the El Royale sits squarely on the divide between California and Nevada. The hotel exists in two places at once, just as Sullivan occupies two identities—he’s undercover as an appliance salesman, but he’s actually Dwight Broadbeck, an agent of the FBI.
Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges, mumbly around the edges) keeps pausing to think, the ghost of a wistful look on his face. He confesses to another guest that his memory is beginning to go; sometimes he’ll stop, unsure of his own name. His real name—when he can remember it—is Dock. He’s shaky on his Catholic doctrine not because he can’t remember it, but because he never was a man of the cloth to begin with. Until two days ago, he’d been a prisoner, doing time for a botched robbery. The money had never been recovered; Dock knows it’s somewhere in the El Royale, but can’t remember the room number.
Emily (Dakota Johnson, with a backbone of iron) stands tall in jeans and a buckskin jacket, smoking cigarettes in the lobby while she waits to check in. She looks like a hippie; she signals her mistrust of authority by signing the guest book with neat block letters that spell “FUCK YOU” between the assumed names of the other guests. She represents herself as alone and independent; in reality, she’s been hauling a teenaged girl named Rose (Cailee Spaeny, easy to underestimate until it’s too late) in the trunk of her car. Emily’s not-what-it-looks-like situation has another knot of complication at the center. What appears to be a standard kidnapping from the outside is actually a rescue. Rose is Emily’s little sister and a cult member; she might appear small and helpless in her white lace dress and cowboy boots, but she’s been fooled by her leader, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth—more on him later), into thinking of herself as an adult. She’s been made more vulnerable by a bad man. She’s also willing to use a knife to get what she wants.
Miles (Lewis Pullman, more vulnerable than Rose), serves as the bellhop/handyman/porter/bartender at the El Royale. He looks younger than his years, an anachronism inside the shabby hotel. He’s horrified when he first sees Dock in the lobby. “This is not a place for a priest, Father,” he insists repeatedly, as though Dock’s collared presence is an indictment on a hotel that, up until that moment, simply looks like a run-down roadside curiosity. Miles’ request for the priest to find a room somewhere else is in its own way a kind of confession: the El Royale is not a good place, and Miles very much wants to leave. He’s been instructed by “management”—no names or faces given—to record some of the El Royale’s guests; he feels stained by his association with the hotel, by the people he’s seen. Even though he first tried to turn Dock away, he keeps sidling up to the priest throughout the rest of the night. Each time, he asks Dock for the sacrament of confession. He’s carrying the weight of his guilt alongside his responsibility for the hotel. He can’t even talk about what he did before his position at the El Royale—but in flashback we see his worst days, fighting and killing in Vietnam.
Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo, shining quietly) never lies about who she is. Sullivan assumes, based purely on the color of her skin, that she’s in housekeeping, then decides a few minutes later that she must be a sex worker. She’s neither: she’s a singer, hauling her own soundproofing equipment, trying to scrape together enough money to live on by taking 6pm gigs in Reno. Reno’s cost of living is too high, and she can’t get any gigs in California, so she lives on the road. She’s a Black woman in 1960s America, stuck between the promise of progress from the Civil Rights Movement and the stonewalling of the white people around her—hostile or pleasantly unhelpful—who refuse to see her as a whole person. She doesn’t like it, but she’s used to living in the in-between.
Hotels are naturally liminal spaces, meant to be left behind. The El Royale exists in a compounded liminal space by straddling the California-Nevada state line. Walking the line is a pointless exercise, an attempt to exist in two places at once. The hotel demonstrates the impossibility of doing so by forcing its guests to pick a side to stay on (California rooms are more expensive than the Nevada side by a dollar, but at least it’s still legal to drink on the California side of the lobby). Its lack of any substantial amenities—an automat instead of a restaurant, its one-man hospitality staff—might as well have been designed to push guests out the door to find better accommodations elsewhere.
The El Royale is not just a liminal space by nature of being a hotel; its very backbone is another liminal space, a hidden corridor that stretches from one end of the building to the next. The corridor connects to each room via a two-way mirror, through which anyone with access can watch the private dramas unfolding behind closed doors. The film designates each drama with title cards named after the locations its main characters occupy: “Room 4” for Dock, “Room 5” for Darlene, “Honeymoon Suite” for Sullivan, even “Maintenance Closet” for Miles. It’s as though their scenes are found footage, labeled by an impassive cataloger who doesn’t know or care about the occupants’ names.
The film draws a distinction between impassive watching and engaged participation, distinguishing voyeurism as a specific kind of sin of liminality. There are sins of omission (failing to do the right thing) and sins of commission (doing the wrong thing); voyeurism stands in the space between the two as neither fully action nor omission of action. Voyeurs stand outside looking in, watching (doing the wrong thing) without participating (failing to do the right thing). By watching, they’re imposing themselves on the people they view. The actions of others become fodder for their own fantasies, and as an extension, the people they watch are no longer people—they’re playthings, trapped without consent outside their own personhood in the voyeur’s mind. The El Royale was designed specifically for spying, with its rooms and their two-way mirrors and the spacious corridor that connects them all to the back office, and to the movie camera that lives there: the all-seeing voyeur eye.
The unseen movie camera that tells the story of Bad Times—the one through which we, the audience, can enter this world—serves a separate function from the camera in the back office. The back-office camera serves only to record the most private moments of unsuspecting hotel guests, out of context and in secret. We never see one, but we know these films are static, chopped short, shipped off to some post office box in Pennsylvania, to be consumed by management—or worse.
Drew Goddard’s movie camera, on the other hand, roams the corridors of the El Royale like an uninvited guest. Its point of view flows from one character to the next, meeting each one at their eye level, following them from room to room, occasionally flashing back to their pasts. Goddard is careful to place his players into context: here’s where they’re coming from, here’s why they do what they do. When their stories begin to crash into each other, the editing compensates, jumping forward and backward a few minutes in time to underline where the stories overlap. As the characters learn more about each other—and as their true identities begin to be revealed—the guilt that haunts each one begins to catch up with them.
Miles’ guilt in particular is rooted firmly in his past, but it grows throughout the El Royale’s spy corridors as well. As the hotel’s lone employee, he’s in charge of cleaning, housekeeping, tending bar, and doing whatever else management needs him to do. He’s paid by management to do their voyeurism for him, to record whomever they need recorded, to spy on whichever of their guests they choose. He sets up the cameras, maintains the equipment, mails the film reels once they’re taken. He’s done all they asked, for every occupant of every room they required—except one. One reel, he never sent in.
We don’t get to see its contents. The identities of its subjects (described only as “a dead man” and “a famous woman”), as well as the activities they’re engaging in, are only strongly implied. Miles recorded the film, but didn’t send it in; the woman had been kind to him when most of the guests only ignored him. The film reel, too, exists in its own in-between space: recorded, but never viewed, two people frozen in time and hidden away from prying eyes.
The final character crashes the party late, striding slowly up the state line that bisects the parking lot in the dark and pouring rain. Billy Lee—the cult leader Emily rescued Rose from—has come to collect his erstwhile “family” member. He’s shirtless and barefoot, preaching free love with a couple heavies in tow. He’d convinced Rose to commit a crime for him back on the California coast, an echo of the murders that Charles Manson directed in real life. Like Manson, Billy Lee calls his followers his family. Like Manson, he surrounds himself with vulnerable young women, runaways, people who exist on the edge of society because they’ve been pushed out to that point. They all live out in the woods: no permanent home, no roof but the sky. Billy Lee romanticizes it, talks about rejecting the rules of society’s games as a form of true freedom. He’s content to live in the liminal space—no home, no family, no rules—but for Billy Lee, it’s a cheat. He can afford to live there because he’s secure there; anyone else trapped in the in-between with him and under him is more vulnerable than before they met him.
This is what makes Billy Lee so dangerous: he’s observant, and he’s willing to play with other people’s lives, showing interest only until he gets bored, then moving on to the next thing. To Billy Lee, others are playthings and objects, only valuable for as long as they’re amusing. In a flashback, we watch him giving a talk to his family about how society will rob them of everything they own while they’re distracted. To illustrate, he instructs Rose and another underage girl to “tussle” each other, promising a place to sleep in a house—with him—to the winner. He watches for a few moments, amused and then quickly bored. While the girls fight, he rummages through their bags, telling the rest of the family that this is what society will do to them, writ small. He’s laughing as he does the very thing he’s warning his family against, but Goddard’s camera holds steady on him, on the girls fighting in the dirt, and on the horrified Emily, who’s come to check on her runaway sister. This is a man who’ll lie brazenly, and who’ll laugh when he’s caught in the lie. He’ll rummage through others’ secrets happily, under the guise of having none himself, but the movie knows him for who he is. The steady gaze of the camera implicates Billy Lee in his voyeuristic hypocrisy.
The camera maintains that steady gaze throughout the rest of the story as well. Billy Lee is not going to change; he’s going to keep using people, and he’s going to keep changing the rules of the game he’s playing when it best suits him. He starts a game of roulette with two of the other hotel occupants, forcing them to choose red or black. Only after the ball in the wheel lands on its designated color does he reveal the stakes of the game: shooting the unlucky player who chose poorly. The other characters don’t matter in his eyes. While the others are still processing their shock, he pulls out a length of Miles’ film reel, examining it by firelight; he remarks that the reel is worth a lot of money because of who’s in it, but his attitude is one of detached disinterest. When he scans the celluloid, it’s as though he’s bored already, a detached observer unable to engage in the very real drama in front of him. He can see the film in front of him, but seeing is an entirely different act from caring. The people in the reel—and the living people around him—are objects, just like they were to hotel management.
Darlene knew what kind of a man Billy Lee was the moment he walked through the door. “You think I don’t see you for who you really are?” she asks him. She’s seen her share of con men and players; she knows how casually he holds the value of a human life. It’s obvious to her that he’ll throw away Rose when he gets bored with her, just like he’ll throw away all the rest of the hotel guests when he gets bored of them. Darlene refuses to play by the rules of Billy Lee’s game, the game he’s willing to change and manipulate to come out on top. She’s seen it all before, and she knows that to give Billy Lee a chance is to give him a foothold in her life; he’ll use any foothold he can to climb over the rest of humanity. She refuses to engage with him at all. She doesn’t find his charisma intriguing, because she knows it to be the front for a man who’ll burn down the world, then sit back and watch the flames, all to ease his boredom.
Drew Goddard isn’t interested in titillation; he’s interested in uncovering the truths about his characters through a camera’s lens. He won’t pin them in place with their worst acts. Under his careful direction, watching becomes a redemptive act instead of a condemning one: we see characters at their worst, and in so doing, we see them for who they really are. They aren’t reduced to their worst days and actions; they’re people, good and bad, flawed and whole.
It’s crucial that the audience never sees the contents of Miles’ film reel. Simply knowing that it exists is enough; we don’t need to see the individual frames to know who the occupants are, and what they did with each other, and how. Showing the contents of the film would have cheapened their memory, rendering us voyeurs alongside the men who ordered the film made in the first place. The people in the reel get to maintain their existence as people in the imagination, rather than being reduced to sordid images of bodies on celluloid. If we’d seen them, we’d have been titillated; we might have been delighted or felt guilty, but the end result would have been the same. Those two people, real or imaginary, would have been reduced to an act that they thought they were doing in private, horribly commodified for public consumption and private gain.
By the end of the story, all false identities are stripped away. There are no alibis or names to hide behind. Everyone’s secrets float into the light. Dock is unmasked for the con man he is; Miles reveals himself to be a crack shot and a killer. And finally, Dock grants Miles his greatest wish: the opportunity to confess what he’s done, to bring his own transgressions to bear. When Dock gives Miles the chance to confess, he implicitly states that he’s seen what Miles has done, and he still sees the person behind the sin. Miles confessing to Dock—even though he knows that Dock is not a priest—is a reciprocation of that same grace. Two broken people, recognizing each other’s brokenness, and offering to carry each other’s hurt. They transcend their positions as objects on a screen. They care for each other, and so do we. We become witnesses alongside them.