Ah, the El Royale. Once a famous lodging place for the rich and famous (and those just looking to let loose immorally), it now sits in its former glory between Nevada and California. And it offers lodgers one of two very different experiences depending upon which side of the state-line straddling hotel they choose.
And you never know which of those two experiences it will be, or who will be involved. The Reverend? The Bell Boy? The Singer? The Hippie? The Vacuum Salesman? They’re all there, along with a few other shady characters.
But they don’t know each other. And they don’t want to. It makes more sense just to stay in your room, locked away among the hotel's dark secrets—secrets that have a way of impacting everyone unfortunate enough to check into to the El Royale.
But in this story's odd game of nasty hotel roulette, everyone is intertwined, and personal preferences get hacked away as the residents of El Royale fight to escape before they check out.
Spirituality is deeply woven into the fabric of this film, starting with the fact that the hotel is described as “not a place for a priest.” The Reverend (a man who only pretends to be a minister) makes various religious comments. He talks about God’s providence and says things like, “This is exactly where the Lord wants me,” and, “It’s a sin to drink alone.” Often, he uses biblical-sounding jargon to manipulate people into giving him what he wants (as do other characters).
One of the Reverend’s primary roles is verbally offering forgiveness to a young man who begs to be forgiven for his sins. The man talks about his past; he says that he was baptized and confirmed, but he still worries about the state of his soul, saying, “I’ve done horrible things.” The Reverend blesses the young man, absolves him from sin and tells him that if he gives himself “to the mercy of the Lord,” he will be forgiven. He also tells the young man that it's never too late to be forgiven and to offer oneself to God.
A cult leader lures young girls and men with his twisted and manipulative spiritual beliefs. He asks, “What does God mean to you?” And he tells his followers that while the outside world forces people to choose between “bad and good,” they should be able to choose whatever they want, because they are their own gods. Some women see past his evil façade, and one refers to him as someone who “talks so much that he starts to believe what he’s saying.” Wicked intentions drive everything the man does, despite spiritual-sounding teaching that might suggest otherwise.
A few characters cry out to God for help (“Lord, I’m in darkness, and I need your light,” one says) and often pray in the midst of crisis. A man says that we “carry the divinity of Jesus Christ in our hearts.” A woman sings various hymns. We hear the name of a particular biblical character.
Some of the most problematic stuff in this film is the sexual content that seeps into every room of the El Royale. The most disturbing elements involve the male cult leader who walks around shirtless and preys upon barely pubescent girls, who look like they can't be more than 12 or 13 at the most, luring them into his organization.
He mentions that only “winners” of certain violent competitions are able to have sex with him. He holds clear control over a number of these underage girls; he caresses and kisses one of them in particular. This same girl is brainwashed (having suffered abuse from her own father, we learn), and she's physically and sexually dependent upon the cult leader.
Flashbacks insinuate the past sexual abuse of several female characters; they also discuss past experiences with sexual harrassment. There are multiple conversations about secret films (characters discuss the films and refer to the hotel as “perverted” because of them) that include couples having sex and a man who holds a wolf in bed in what's described as a “not sexual but sexual” way. The same films get sent to another secret group of people who are interested in watching them.
A man strips in front of a child and is shown completely naked from the back. A man dances up against another man. Women wear revealing outfits.
Someone references rape. A woman is called a "prostitute." And a man talks about being aroused by underage girls.
People carry guns of all sorts and aren’t afraid to use them. Men and women are violently and ruthlessly shot in the stomach and in the head (we see bullet holes and a lot of blood), punched and bashed in the face. A woman threatens to shoot a man “right in the face.” A girl massacres an entire family (we both hear this on the news and briefly see it as she holds a knife that's covered in blood). She also stabs another man to death and brutally beats another peer. Similarly, a young girl and others are tied to chairs and gagged.
Women suffer horrible flashbacks of past abuse both as adults and children. A woman remembers her father hitting her (which we see) and looking for her younger sister to abuse as well. A man recalls watching a senator beat a woman nearly to death. An elderly man recalls an experience in which he severely beat up a man in prison.
People fight and yell. News reports broadcast coverage of the Vietnam War. A young man recalls his time in that war. He says he once woke up amidst hundreds of dead bodies, and he confesses to killing more than 120 people.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Multiple people drink hard liquor and take shots of whiskey. Others are seen carrying around bottles of liquor, and a few men get drunk. A few people smoke cigarettes, and a young man struggles with a drug addiction. (We see him lying alone in a small room, passed out, with a needle stuck in his arm and a vial of drugs on his nightstand.) A man slips drugs into a woman’s whiskey.
I’ve seen a lot of movies. It’s my job. But this one … man. To say that this movie is full of twists and turns would be an understatement. This grim indie thriller tries to be many things at once—like an unlikely Agatha Christie-Quentin Tarantino mash-up. But it ends up being little more in the end than a huge mess.
It's true that quite a few moments here involve spiritual themes, with characters calling out earnestly to God and seeking forgiveness for former sins.
But let's not kid ourselves: Many of this film's religious moments also get twisted in darkly perverse ways. We also witness a montage of vicious violence. And the sexual content involving cult leaders and the underage girls they abuse and prey upon is just repugnant … repugnant enough that you’d do well to speed past the El Royale and seek lodging elsewhere.