Star Wars without Obi-Wan. The Matrix without Morpheus. Supporting characters are the true unsung heroes of most films throughout the decades, driving the plot forward while facilitating the character development of the leads. There are some movies, however, where the significance of a role might go unnoticed, especially when it comes to films with large ensemble casts. Some of the Marvel cinematic entries come to mind, but in this instance, we’ll be looking at Bad Times at the El Royale and Jon Hamm’s Dwight Broadbeck, the undercover FBI agent.
It’s quite difficult to pinpoint an exact lead or lead characters in this film, until the final scenes when the apparent survivors of all the interconnected tragedies come through. Bad Times is broken down into chapters, much like a Tarantino movie, shifting the perspective of the viewer at given intervals from one character to the next, so that the mystery that is the El Royale hotel is unraveled deliciously, bit by bit, like an onion skin being peeled.
The earliest chapter belongs to Jon Hamm, who’s introduced in the hotel lobby as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, a vacuum cleaner salesman. He interacts with Jeff Bridges’ Father Daniel, Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene Sweet, Dakota Johnson’s Emily Summerspring, and Lewis Pullman’s Miles Miller, the hotel concierge. Sullivan puts up a brash and arrogant front, offending both the Father and Darlene in a patronizing manner. It’s easy to expect him to befall some unfortunate fate at some point in the movie based on just these premature scenes, or rather to wish it.
Sullivan’s adamant that he book the honeymoon suite, and he gets his way. Once he’s inside the room, though, his façade drops in an instant. From this scene itself, or even the one in the lobby, Jon Hamm’s character sets the mood and tone for Bad Times.
Mood and Tone
Hamm’s dual identity is critical in subverting the viewers’ expectations. As Laramie Sullivan, you might want him to die for being an arse. As Dwight Broadbeck, the undercover agent, you want him to stay alive so that we may slowly uncover the secret the FBI’s after. Hamm is critical in showing us that nothing is as it seems. In the lobby, he’s got an airy braggadocio, detailing his life and profession while giving everyone a history lesson about the El Royale, how politicians and Hollywood celebrities once graced the now dilapidated establishment. But underneath it all, there’s something more sinister at work, and we get the first inkling of this when Hamm’s character dissects the honeymoon suite.
While using the room’s telephone to call his wife and daughter, he dismantles the landline piece by piece, only to discover that the room is surveilled from every possible angle. With his instincts honed in, he breaks down anything and everything around, unearthing countless recording devices.
Dwight is single-handedly responsible for discovering a critical element of the movie, the two-way mirrors allowing hotel staff to spy on and record the El Royale’s guests. In fact, that’s precisely why he’s there, to extract a secret recording of a past guest at the hotel, presumed to be a politician, most likely a Kennedy based on the trail of clues sprinkled throughout the film. He’s also critical in grounding the film’s mystery on solid footing, eking out information and facts only when required. Mysteries regularly rely on keeping the audience in the dark up until a certain point in time, and Hamm obliges. He doesn’t reveal the subject in the tape, whether that’s the name, age, occupation, or even if the subject is alive or dead. We’re left to infer these facts based on our judgments alone.
That’s precisely the point. The first chapter is Hamm’s, and there’s no need to reveal details that might be discovered later. Each character is dealing with their own secrets, and Bad Times does a fine job of uncovering or covering these secrets to keep us hooked, starting with Hamm.
Bad Times clocks at two hours and twenty-one minutes. It isn’t rushed by any means. Given that, Hamm takes his time with everything he does in his chapter. The call he has with his daughter, the dismantling of the room, the first suspicious look he gives the giant mirror in his suite. All these things are done slowly at a snail’s pace. As he traces his steps outside his room and makes his way to the lobby and then the staff quarters, the pace drops even further, making any impending revelation just a little creepier. He passes the drugged-out Miles Miller and into a dark corridor, leading into a tunnel where he now gets to spy on every single guest at the hotel, courtesy of the two-way mirrors. Some amazing camera movements and panning ensure that we spend just the right amount of time on each element.
Hamm’s character takes in all the details bit by bit, inviting us along. His FBI agent walks from one mirror to the next, looking into the other guests’ rooms while those on the other side are completely unaware. The so-called Father is breaking the floorboards to access some hidden object. Darlene starts singing a song while Dwight switches on the connection between the mics and the tunnel speakers. Best of all, he moves to Emily Summerspring’s room and notices a kidnapping in progress, starkly at odds with the song Darlene sings in the background. Then, he finally locks eyes with a camera on a tripod and moves to take out its tape, missing a crucial detail that would cost him his life: a shotgun that Emily takes to her hand, previously unseen in the corner of her room (once again, amazing cinematography).
From here on out, Hamm’s chapter plays out much faster as he calls the FBI and gets the next set of orders. Make sure none of the guests leave, get the tape, and don’t engage in any other policing activities, even if it’s thwarting a kidnapping. Of course, he can’t get himself to follow that last order. So right after he makes sure all the other vehicles in the parking lot have their engines cut off, he visits Emily’s room.
Moral Ambiguity and Subversion
No one in this film is a one-dimensional straight shooter. Hamm’s Laramie Sullivan/Dwight Broadbeck sets the precedent. He’s an asshole salesman who turns into an FBI agent. He turns from an arse to a man with a plan. You expect him to be a by the book FBI agent, but his decisions paint a picture to the contrary.
He worries about the woman Emily kidnapped and has a strong impulse to save her. His strong moral underpinnings are evident before that, too. After playing the part of a demeaning and patronizing salesman in the lobby, part of his cover, he makes time to call his wife and daughter. This additional layer to his character makes him more likable. He’s not just doing his job, he does care about things and people. And that’s exactly what gets him killed.
Having not seen the shotgun in Emily’s room, he barges in after an attempted cordial conversation with her goes south. He manages to knock her down, but while checking in on the tied victim, Emily gets hold of the shotgun. Some seconds later, our potential hero is sent backward through a two-way mirror, revealing the insidious nature of the hotel to Emily and the tied woman, her sister. Dwight lies motionless on the floor, not living up to the expectations we had cooked up for him.
Bad Times relishes the subversion of general expectations and uses morally ambivalent characters to do so. Our first impressions of all these people are just that, first impressions. Spending more time with them reveals a completely different nature to them. The ruthless kidnapper and cop killer is just trying to save her younger sister from a dangerous cult. The mild-mannered Father, on the other hand, is a convicted criminal, a bank robber after his lost money. The meek hotel clerk is a war veteran, but more than that, an enabler of all the atrocious conduct at the El Royale looking for absolution. Even Cynthia Erivo’s seemingly harmless soul singer crosses a few proverbial lines while dealing with this bunch of misfits. Nothing is what it seems.
The mood, tone, pacing, moral ambiguity and general subversion of expectations are opened up through Jon Hamm’s character. He’s the opening act, the hero-in-waiting who’s instantly taken off his perch. Bad Times is about the unraveling of secrets, made possible by compressing combustible personalities into a noxious environment. Jon Hamm, through his portrayal of a salesman and an FBI agent, creates a perfect setup for the other characters to follow. He’s a supporting character whose presence for the first act sets the stage for what is to come; expect the unexpected.