Even in tough times for rank-and-file Catholics, positive reinforcement can sometimes come from the strangest places.
The new movie “Bad Times at the El Royale” is hitting theatres October 12 amid a reawakening clerical sex abuse crisis with a potent and touching reminder of the good that so many priests do in the world and, more importantly, the power of the sacrament of Confession to bring peace, solace, forgiveness and redemption to anyone who asks for it.
The ads and trailers for “Bad Times” might have suggested a vastly different kind of movie: A Quentin Tarantino-style exploration of evil that wallows in shocking violence for laughs rather than any sense of redemption.
Six mysterious people 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 when Dean Martin would stay there for 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 salesman named Laramie who's actually an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) and a charismatic creep named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) who has a strange connection to the sisters . 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. 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.
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 towards the light with a powerful redemption story.
When one of the film’s 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 afforded by the sacrament of Confession. As I sat among a thousand hipsters with no idea that the “Pulp Fiction”-style film they’d walked into would turn out to be an impassioned display of the great good that Catholic priests do every day, it was a wonder to behold all of them riveted to the screen and experiencing a film that was in fact a superb evangelical tool.
Thank writer-director Drew Goddard for that. A devout and outspoken Catholic, Goddard has made a huge splash in Hollywood over the past 15 years with his work on a wide variety of shows and movies including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Alias,” “Lost,” “The Cabin in the Woods” and the first two “Cloverfield” movies.
Yet while those were critically acclaimed hits, he has also put his Catholic faith front and center in the Netflix series “Daredevil,” in which the title character is a superhero who's a practicing Catholic, and the NBC sitcom “The Good Place,” whose IMDB description says is about “A woman struggles to define what it means to be good.” Here, he places unmistakable focus on Catholicism as a force for good, and at a post-screening Q&A, Jeff Bridges said that “my boss being Catholic made this a great experience.”
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” acapella 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 mastery 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 before deploying 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.
The film’s R rating is well-earned: There’s plenty of profanity, some violence, and a character who’s an implied pedophile. But for adult Catholics, this is a film that will move and entertain, and should not be ignored.
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