While the suffocating and lurking elements of The Assistant (2020) may have been the most impressive factor, the emotional depth of courage and endurance invested by Kitty Green in the bonds between her characters make the film the most resonant. Whether its female characters staying strong against toxic behavior and weaponized abuse of masculinity or the power of friendship, there is a commanding courage to be found in Greene’s first narrative feature set in her homeland of Australia. A gripping psychological drama with thriller elements about two young American backpackers who take jobs at a pub deep in the Australian Outback and find themselves experiencing harassment from the local patrons. While the film has effective tension-building with a mostly satisfying climax, there is something more potent that filmmaker Green has brewing that gives hints to a Sam Peckinpah thriller. But The Royal Hotel remains a potent narrative that unfolds with unnerving menace and unsettling moments that make it a memorable experience.
In addition to Green’s transition from a modest documentary filmmaker to making narrative features with more canvas and in her homeland, the film shows confident steps of Green’s sensibilities of making films that seek out the truth. The Assistant was about a new hire employee walking into a Tribecca production company where the executive producer lures actresses into his office, where the behaviors are clearly modeled after Harvey Weinstein. Green and fellow co-writer Oscar Redding once again take an interest in real events, as The Royal Hotel is based on the 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie.
While the documentary was about Finnish backpackers, Green’s fictionalized retelling changes the nationality of Finnish to two Americans’ Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), two best friends who just tell everyone they are from Canada instead of America. While partying on a cruise ship in Sydney, the two women end up running out of money. They end up going to the employment service and are offered work at a crumbling bar in the South Australian Outback called the Royal Hotel, which is far from royal.
They arrive at the bar in a mining town, and the first floor is mostly dusty, and the upstairs is where the passing staff may stay. When Hanna and Liv arrive, they read a sign that reads “Fresh Meat.” The owner of the establishment is Billy (Hugo Weaving), who is constantly intoxicated as his business partner Carol (Ursula Yovich), who is the cook, shows the most compassion for Hanna and Liv. She is also lecturing Billy to keep his pub in order and pay his bills, for which he drinks much of the inventory. Billy’s behavior is actually quaint compared to the local townspeople, who go to the bar every night after work, where they drink hard liquor, take shots, get into shouting fights, break beer bottles, and lambaste Hanna and Liv with sexist slurs. The type of demoralization has reached a level of normalization, and Hanna and Liv end up just going with the flow and forming thick skin as it leaves audiences shaken. While Hanna is unsettled, Liv rationalizes their behavior by saying they are just overly stressed, overworked, and lonely.
Of course, there are different levels of drunkenness. Some are just harmless, while others become vicious and even violent. Liv tries to adapt to the situation and stays as diplomatic as she can. Hanna is terrified and is quite eager to leave. Hanna does build some trust with Matty (Tobby Wallace), who is closer to their age and shows some charm while they drink. He takes them out to the waterfall, and Hanna begins to find herself attractive to him. Then there is Teeth (James Frenchville), who appears charming and nice at first, until he drinks too much and becomes hot-tempered when things don’t go his way. Worst of all is Dolly (Daniel Henshall), a vicious drunk with an awful temper that leads to the most terrifying results. While Green prevents the material from being another Wolf Creek, it takes a more tenuous approach, even with unsettling moments. Although I do wonder just how effective the finale would have been had Green gone all out, Peckinpah style.
Green’s script and direction maintain a sensible balance between the two leads quest for courage and their quest for vitality until the women push themselves out of such frightening turmoil. It’s this commanding depth to the psychological details, along with the nuanced performances by Garner and Henwick, that allows the viewer to see these women and their strength, which transcends their status as victims into something of a valiant survivor.
The Royal Hotel is now playing in limited theaters.