Following 2019’s deeply unnerving “The Assistant” with another razor-sharp Julia Garner collaboration, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green has decided to strand her favorite actress in one of the few places on Earth more dangerous for a young woman than Harvey Weinstein’s production office: A shithole bar on the border of an ultra-remote mining town so deep within the Australian outback that no one there has even heard of the #MeToo movement. Welcome to “The Royal Hotel.”
The good news is that Garner’s character isn’t alone; Hanna’s on an open-ended vacation with her friend Liv (Jessica Henwick) when the two run out of money on a party boat in Sydney and decide to sign up for the last Work & Travel job available. The bad news is that Liv is about to be Hanna’s only ally for a few hundred miles in any direction, and she tends to become more of a liability than a safety net after a few drinks. The lady at the job office warns these wayward American girls that they might have to put up with some male attention, but that would be like the owner of the Overlook Hotel warning Wendy Torrance that she might have to put up with a mild case of writer’s block.
And so the stage is set for Green to stage another masterfully constructed pressure cooker about the perils of being a woman on planet Earth, this one much pulpier and more visceral than “The Assistant” (which was a veritable chamber piece), but no less exacting in how it conveys the constant threat assessment required for a girl in Hanna’s situation to make it safely through the night. By the end of her first shift behind the bar at The Royal Hotel, an elaborate matrix of lust, expectation, and entitlement has already been established between Hanna and some of the bar’s regulars. By the end of her second week there, every beer she’s asked to get a particularly terrifying miner — and every smile that she’s expected to serve along with it — has become as suspenseful as watching a truck full of nitroglycerine make a hairpin turn in “The Wages of Fear.”
Co-written by Green and Oscar Redding, “The Royal Hotel” starts by subverting whatever expectations you might have about a thriller in which two beautiful American girls find themselves at the mercy of some sex-starved roughnecks in the middle of nowhere. For starters, the gruff Aboriginal local who picks them up from the bus station — or at least the pitch of dirt where they got dropped off — isn’t some ominous man who makes overtures of violence to come, but a middle-aged woman named Carol (Ursula Yovich), who works in the pub’s kitchen. And the two English girls who Hanna and Liv are replacing? Well they haven’t vanished under mysterious circumstances or anything like that. On the contrary, they seem perfectly happy to have worked somewhere without cell service for the last few weeks, and our heroines even catch one of them enjoying some nice goodbye dick before heading back home.
Played by an abandoned pub in a town that has a population of 29 people, The Royal Hotel itself is more dilapidated than foreboding, and while its alcoholic proprietor might burst in on the girls when they’re trying to use the broken showers next to the bedrooms above the bar, Billy (an excellent Hugo Weaving) seems more like a nuisance than a threat. You get the sense that The Royal Hotel didn’t feel like an ironic name for this dump when Billy’s grandfather opened it all those years ago, but the bar — much like its begrimed current owner — now seems like the punchline of a cruel joke. Given his financial situation, Billy can’t even afford to ban patrons from the bar, which removes one of the only guardrails protecting Hanna and Liv from the clientele.
“The Royal Hotel” is flecked with scenes that could’ve been lifted out of a classic horror movie (one spine-tingling bit, in which drunken men prowl the upstairs hallways like zombies, confirms that Green has the skill to make top-tier Hollywood schlock, should she ever feel like debasing herself), but much of the film’s genius is rooted in its frog boiling in water realism. Hanna is ready to go home from the first night, and you would support that decision in every way, but the situation is never so dire that you resent her for staying, and Garner does an excellent job of threading the needle between vulnerability and resolve. We never learn much of anything about why she and Liv decided to leave their old lives behind, or what they might be running away from, but there’s no confusing these intrepid but level-headed women for the uncooked red meat that similar genre fare tends to put in situations like this.
Besides, some of the local men seem harmless enough, even if they’re all circling the girls like hungry sharks with the scent of blood in their noses. Matty (“Babyteeth” breakout Toby Wallace, continuing to impress) is the nicest of the bunch, or at least the cutest. Sure, he’s an oaf like all the rest, but he loves Kylie Minogue and went to school for meteorology so who knows. There’s certainly more potential there than there is with Teeth (“Animal Kingdom” star James Frecheville), the resident “nice guy” who assumes that if he sits at the bar for long enough that one of the girls will belong to them. And Dolly (played by “The Babadook” actor Daniel Henshall), well he’s obviously the most dangerous of them all from the first time you see him.
Those three stand out, but while Green’s film only runs a lean 91 minutes (and might’ve benefited from another turn of the screw or two), her watchful eye still gives us plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with all of the people who might blow into The Royal Hotel every night. Every scene — every shot, even — is an ambiently harrowing process of studying who’s there, reading the room, assessing how helpful the cackling older women might be in a crisis, and sussing out what the men feel empowered to do in each other’s company (often a nuanced and sickening equation).
By the time the movie is half-over we can already feel how the temperature changes when Carol or Billy enters the room, even if the mood only changes by a degree or two. When two out-of-towners sidle up to the bar looking for some champagne, a chill runs down your spine because you know they’re not supposed to be there.
Few movies have ever so palpably or intricately conveyed the violent pall of male attention, and the men here are that much scarier because not even they seem to know what they’re capable of doing, or what their endgame might be. The threat level is always in flux, which prevents this broadly familiar thriller from ever feeling as if it’s on rails. The movie is as fluid as a drunken night out (Henwick, who’s quickly becoming one of our most exciting young actresses, deserves all the credit in the world for bringing raw truth to Liv’s bad choices), and while The Royal Hotel might be dying before our eyes, Green ensures that the place still has a life of its own.
Hanna and Live don’t know what kind of movie they’re in, and “The Royal Hotel” is so distressing because we’re afraid that we do. It’s so gripping, however, because we’re only half-right. Obvious as it is that shit is going to go south (cue: the big storm that blows in at the precise moment the girls are left unsupervised), it’s impossible to predict how nimbly Green is going to destabilize the situation by playing with different genres.
The more frightening things get, the more they tip into Western territory. That dynamic climaxes with an image so nakedly Fordian that you can feel Green’s film exploding out of the bar and straight into the stuff of myth. The specifics of Hanna and Liv’s situation might be strange and uncommonly nuanced, but this is a tale as old as time. The only thing these girls have the power to change is who gets to tell it; it’s a power that Garner’s character in “The Assistant” sorely lacked, and one that Green leverages here — in a far deadlier but more pliable environment — with cathartic glee.
“The Royal Hotel” premiered at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. NEON will release it in theaters later this year.