Good Times with “Bad Times”

Nate Trees, Editor

Bad Times at the El Royale is a Neo-noir crime thriller about seven suspect strangers who meet at the “El Royale,” a hotel on the border of Nevada and California with a dark and storied past. The year is 1969. The hotel itself, once a hotspot for celebrities of the 1950s, is almost totally empty. A blatant sense of vacancy radiates from the hotel throughout the film. The setting feels like it has a personality. But that’s not what the movie is about.

~Possible Spoilers!~

The movie’s strong suit is its high-efficiency storytelling and character exposition. The movie has seven main characters, and each of them has a rich personality and motivation that the film explains with the utmost care and precision at incredible speeds. Where other films might have one or two complex characters with clear motivation from the beginning, Bad Times at the El Royale introduces its characters with little more than their belongings and personalities, only revealing their names when they sign the hotel’s ledger. Rather than the conventional film, where a character’s personality might be explained through their interactions in a familiar environment or situation, somewhere that they may be comfortable in, Bad Times at the El Royale shows characters who are unfamiliar with each other interacting as they explore and settle in an environment that they are equally unfamiliar with. They reveal information about themselves as much as anyone would in the presence of strangers. These interactions provide the basis of personality for each character, which the film later expands on with explanations of motivation in short yet illuminating flashback scenes and character moments.

For instance, the hotel’s single employee, Miles, appears to be a nervous young man doing far too many jobs upon his introduction: running the reception desk, bartending, cleaning rooms, etc. However, as more information about his place of work is revealed, it becomes obvious that Miles is more than meets the eye. When first interacting with another one of the main characters, a priest (as far as the audience knows during this time) Miles asks, upset, what a holy man would be doing at his place of work; “This is no place for a priest,” he says, visibly shaken. This interaction lets us peer into Miles conscience, as well as allowing speculation about Miles true job and the nature of the hotel. Later, in a quick shot, less than 10 whole seconds in this two-hour film, we see Miles passed out after using opioids as another character sneaks into the employee area behind the reception desk. Another piece of the puzzle is placed towards who Miles is, and a possible explanation of his high-strung demeanor. Moments like this continue, including a scene where Miles desperately tries to repent for his sins with the priest, with almost no provocation, and another scene where Miles breaks down after being confronted about his position at the hotel, in which he unwittingly admits to the dark nature of his job, through agonizing sobs.

Other methods the film uses to explain characters like Miles is short but highly implicit flashbacks to the character’s life. They might be 1-2 minutes, while others might be 30 seconds, like Miles. Intercut with the film’s climax are short and sweet shots of three points in Miles’ life. First, his first time handling a rifle, showing that he’s a good shot with firearms. Second, him on a battlefield in Vietnam, hesitantly killing enemy soldiers. Finally, we were shown him crying in the aftermath of the battle, as he curls into a ball, surrounded by corpses. While none of it is explicitly stated, it informs us of Miles’ history and, without getting into too much detail, provides relevant information to the scene.

What these instances do is provide a basic understanding of Miles with little explicit exposition, giving the audience time to figure out the character gradually by letting on more about them in precise moments of insight. In terms of time spent explaining who he is, the movie colors in his persona in maybe three minutes total, spread throughout the course of the film. This nonlinear character exposition isn’t only an effective means of relaying character information, but a powerful tool for adding intrigue and tension to the story. Remember, this kind of development is happening concurrently with all seven characters, having their motivations and persona explained in small increments, interwoven with other character moments. It can be argued that we don’t truly understand a single character’s motivation or personality until over halfway through the film, and yet the ever-thickening plot draws in the audience’s attention despite how little we understand about the characters.

In sum, Bad Times at the El Royale’s use of efficient and implicit character exposition allows it to not just grip its audience, but provide a dense plot with lots of moving parts without extensive explanation.