Inspired by Hotel Coolgardie, Pete Gleeson’s shock 2016 documentary about two female Finnish backpackers and their work experience at a predominantly male-frequented pub, The Royal Hotel similarly shines a light on the the disturbing, toxic nature that can spawn from a small, isolated town that exploits Australia’s “drinking culture” mentality.
An ironic title that will be the first of many components of Kitty Green‘s gradually unnerving thriller to tickle Australian audiences (the others being the flippant use of the “c” word, appreciating early Kylie Minogue music, and eating a Golden Gaytime), The Royal Hotel centres itself around Canadian besties Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), a backpacking duo who have evidently enjoyed their time a little too much whilst travelling through Australia as they have next-to-no money left to their names.
Not wanting to return home, Hanna and Liv take a last-minute job in an outback (way outback) town filled to the brim with coalminers; well, as filled to the brim as possible in such a remote location. Liv is enthused, Hanna less so, and the volatility of their boss, Billy (a standout Hugo Weaving), makes for an uncomfortable working environment practically from the get-go. Billy may have found a way to deal with the riff-raff of his pub – the customers are either rowdy or offensive – but it’s clear such a position and a lack of authority regarding his own actions is taking a toll, both physically and psychologically; only his partner, Carol (Ursula Yovich), able to lay down any type of law with him.
Whilst the promotional imagery of Hanna and Liv standing in remote nothingness with little else but their worried expression and backpacks suggests The Royal Hotel could embrace a more traditional horror temperament – I gather many will be expecting something akin to Wolf Creek, because we just can’t seem to treat our backpackers nicely on film – Green, who also helmed the uncomfortable mastery of The Assistant, opts for something far more terrifying in that so much of this film has a familiarity to it. Hanna and Liv finding themselves at the centre of male attention means they have to toe a certain line between entertaining their customers, but maintaining enough awareness to keep themselves safe.
In a film where so much yet so little happens, the opposing personalities of Hanna and Liv is where much of The Royal Hotel‘s tension derives from – though it’s always sprouted from the actions of the men around them. Thanks to Carol we know that we never have to truly be afraid of Billy, he’s so often a threat to himself, but the presence of a trio of the pub’s patrons, Dolly (Daniel Henshall), Teeth (James Frencheville), and Matty (Toby Wallace), drives the lingering feeling of discomfort for both us an audience and for Hanna and Liv. Matty has a certain happy-go-lucky nature that appears harmless before he mistakes the girls’ repose for an intimate invitation; Dolly’s intense nature flits between being helpful and harmful; and Teeth, though perhaps the “nicest” man we encounter, has a level of expectation regarding women that almost makes him the most dangerous of them all. It’s truly frightening.
And as much as the male characters test our patience and our nerves – there’s rarely a scene where it doesn’t feel like something sinister will happen – Hanna and Liv both prove frustrating throughout too. Hanna rightfully wants to leave the establishment after only one night, but Liv rationalises the patrons’ behaviour as “a cultural thing” (she’s not wrong in many ways) and convinces her to stay. And though that’s an understandable reaction due to their monetary woes, the fact that the two of them do nothing to stop the overtly flirty-cum-promiscuous behaviour of their predecessors – a duo of British girls – speaks to a mentality of how far women will go to support other women.
With all its tension though – the scenes between Hanna and Dolly are arguably when the film feels at its most palpable (though one encounter she has with Matty tests the nerves) – I suspect general moviegoers who expect The Royal Hotel to fall into the traditional traps of the thriller genre could be underwhelmed with the fact that the film doesn’t submit to any set-pieces. It’s a dialogue-driven thriller with a burning sense of unease lingering over every interaction.
The horror present in The Royal Hotel is of a purely human nature, and that’s what ultimately makes it such a fascinating, engaging experience. It’s a slow burn but Green’s ease at manipulating our expectations, and the sublime performances on hand (there’s not one weak turn across the ensemble) make for a visit you won’t necessarily enjoy, but oh how it will be remembered.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Royal Hotel is screening as part of this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival, running between October 26th and November 5th, 2023. The film is scheduled for a national release on November 23rd, 2023.
The Royal Hotel was originally reviewed as part of our SXSW Sydney Screen Festival coverage.