Crises of Faith in 'Bad Times at the El Royale'
[This story contains spoilers for Bad Times at the El Royale]
"Are you lost, Father?"
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After a mysterious prologue involving the burying of treasure and a murder, it is with these words that the central narrative of Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale finally starts rolling, introducing the duo of forgetful priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) who will ultimately prove to be Bad Times’ only survivors.
Bad Times has a lot to say about faith — but to what end is far less evident. After repeatedly indulging in un-priestly behavior, Flynn proves to be no holy man at all, but a recently paroled bank robber in disguise. Other invocations of religion throughout the film prove similarly misleading or otherwise empty.
An FBI agent posing as vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) recites, "Now I lay me down to sleep" over the phone with his young daughter, only to be stopped on the penultimate line. "If I should die before I wake" has been deemed "morbid," and replaced with a cheerier rhyme about waking in morning light and doing what’s right. Upon his daughter’s insistence, Sullivan somewhat exasperatedly parrots the new version from the beginning. Soon after, he violates orders in an attempt to do the "right" thing by rescuing an apparent kidnapping victim and gets shot dead for his efforts.
Trying to get away from the craziness of the El Royale, Darlene pleas desperately for divine aid as she attempts to start her car, which has been sabotaged by Sullivan. It does not work, and even after she risks getting close to trigger-happy Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) to recover her stolen car part from Sullivan’s corpse, the automobile refuses to start. If the influence of any higher power is actually at work, it would appear to be against Darlene instead of on her side.
In flashback, guilt-ridden sharpshooter Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) pleads with God in a corpse-strewn jungle in Vietnam. Cut ahead to 1969: he’s a concierge at the El Royale who has turned to heroin for solace, to add to his shame.
"I’m too late," Miles bemoans near the end of the film, bleeding out from a stomach wound. Sprawled atop the Nevada-California borderline that divides the El Royale, he occupies a liminal space in every sense. Darlene tries to convince Miles otherwise, calling on Flynn to play priest once more even though all parties involved know the sham.
Flynn does, performing a somewhat awkward attempt at Extreme Unction. He answers Miles’ repentance with an assurance of forgiveness, "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." As soon as Miles dies, Flynn and Darlene hurry to rescue Flynn’s stolen money before making their escape, leaving his body to burn with the El Royale.
There’s a certain nihilistic edge to Bad Times in general, embodied by the bold, but ultimately arbitrary, Nevada-California borderline that divides the hotel. Some characters, like Darlene, tread around it, carefully moving from one side to the other without stepping on the mark itself, while others, such as Jim Jones-esque cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), go out of their way to dance on it. But in the end, the mark proves no more significant than some paint on the ground.
If Bad Times poses traditional organized religion, as represented by Catholicism, as something of an empty promise, that still looks a whole lot better than alternative forms of worship.
"What does God mean to you?" Billy Lee asks a crowd of his acolytes at a bonfire. "Tonight, we get to be our own gods," he claims later in the same speech, though as a textbook megalomaniac his "we" clearly means "I," manipulating and abusing his followers for his enjoyment.
The saying goes that "There are no atheists in foxholes," and while that certainly rings true in Bad Times, the futility of characters’ prayers is also made plainly and repeatedly evident.
So, where is God in Bad Times? He’s awfully quiet — if he’s even there at all.
While stories of crises of faith have been told for centuries, they seem to have had a particular resurgence in the past few years, especially regarding Christianity. Since 2016, crises of Christian faith have played out on screens big and small in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the AMC adaptation of the Preacher comics and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, among others.
One of the key things about religions is that they generally provide both relatively clear codes of conduct and incentivize them, as most bluntly laid out in what is known as Pascal’s Wager. Basically: if there is even a possibility that God exists, it is in one’s own best interest to behave accordingly (i.e. be a virtuous person), because the finite loss of worldly pleasures for the potential of infinite posthumous gains (i.e. Heaven) is a much smaller price to pay than enjoying those worldly pleasures at the cost of eternal damnation in Hell.
But as Bad Times repeatedly reminds the audience, such efforts often come at great personal risk. The film asks what is "goodness" even, or forgiveness? And who is qualified to give it, for that matter? Are Miles’ earnest deathbed apologies, directed towards a career criminal wearing a clerical collar, actually worth anything? Or is it just a moment of false comfort for a dying man?
All these kinds of concerns bubble under the surface of Bad Times. Regarding Darlene’s opening inquiry, in a spiritual sense, the entire film and all the people in it are quite lost indeed, searching for answers that ultimately allude capture.
However, in spite of its nihilistic undertones, Bad Times ends on a high note, with Darlene performing in Reno with a supportive Flynn in the audience. It suggests there might be things in this world worth caring about, worth having faith in after all –– the film just can’t quite articulate why. But then again, that is what makes faith unique, entirely different from something like science: belief defined by the absence of proof.
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