Bright Wall/Dark Room July 2022: Bad Times at the El Royale: You Think I Can’t See You for Who You Really Are? by Sarah Welch-Larson | Features

Miles’ guilt in particular is rooted firmly in his past, but it grows throughout the El Royale’s spy corridors as well. As the hotel’s lone employee, he’s in charge of cleaning, housekeeping, tending bar, and doing whatever else management needs him to do. He’s paid by management to do their voyeurism for him, to record whomever they need recorded, to spy on whichever of their guests they choose. He sets up the cameras, maintains the equipment, mails the film reels once they’re taken. He’s done all they asked, for every occupant of every room they required—except one. One reel, he never sent in.

We don’t get to see its contents. The identities of its subjects (described only as “a dead man” and “a famous woman”), as well as the activities they’re engaging in, are only strongly implied. Miles recorded the film, but didn’t send it in; the woman had been kind to him when most of the guests only ignored him. The film reel, too, exists in its own in-between space: recorded, but never viewed, two people frozen in time and hidden away from prying eyes.


The final character crashes the party late, striding slowly up the state line that bisects the parking lot in the dark and pouring rain. Billy Lee—the cult leader Emily rescued Rose from—has come to collect his erstwhile “family” member. He’s shirtless and barefoot, preaching free love with a couple heavies in tow. He’d convinced Rose to commit a crime for him back on the California coast, an echo of the murders that Charles Manson directed in real life. Like Manson, Billy Lee calls his followers his family. Like Manson, he surrounds himself with vulnerable young women, runaways, people who exist on the edge of society because they’ve been pushed out to that point. They all live out in the woods: no permanent home, no roof but the sky. Billy Lee romanticizes it, talks about rejecting the rules of society’s games as a form of true freedom. He’s content to live in the liminal space—no home, no family, no rules—but for Billy Lee, it’s a cheat. He can afford to live there because he’s secure there; anyone else trapped in the in-between with him and under him is more vulnerable than before they met him.

This is what makes Billy Lee so dangerous: he’s observant, and he’s willing to play with other people’s lives, showing interest only until he gets bored, then moving on to the next thing. To Billy Lee, others are playthings and objects, only valuable for as long as they’re amusing. In a flashback, we watch him giving a talk to his family about how society will rob them of everything they own while they’re distracted. To illustrate, he instructs Rose and another underage girl to “tussle” each other, promising a place to sleep in a house—with him—to the winner. He watches for a few moments, amused and then quickly bored. While the girls fight, he rummages through their bags, telling the rest of the family that this is what society will do to them, writ small. He’s laughing as he does the very thing he’s warning his family against, but Goddard’s camera holds steady on him, on the girls fighting in the dirt, and on the horrified Emily, who’s come to check on her runaway sister. This is a man who’ll lie brazenly, and who’ll laugh when he’s caught in the lie. He’ll rummage through others’ secrets happily, under the guise of having none himself, but the movie knows him for who he is. The steady gaze of the camera implicates Billy Lee in his voyeuristic hypocrisy.

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