In 2019, Australian documentary filmmaker Kitty Green made her directorial debut in narrative cinema with a stark, almost cinéma vérité-style film that delved into the life of an office assistant working at a Tribeca film company, an organization bearing a resemblance to the notorious Harvey Weinstein. At its core, the movie explored the male-dominated culture within that workspace and the unsettling behavior of the boss, creating a modern-day horror story during the height of the #MeToo movement. However, for her second narrative film, “The Royal Hotel,” which premiered at Telluride and is currently featured at the Toronto Film Festival, Green takes a notably different filmmaking approach. This time, she delves deeper into the darker aspects of masculinity through the lens of the female perspective, set against the backdrop of a dilapidated hotel bar in a desolate part of the Australian Outback.
Based on Pete Gleeson’s 2017 documentary about two Scandinavian girls trapped at the Hotel Coolgardie, the setup itself lends itself to the horror genre, but Green’s exploration here transcends traditional horror tropes. The story follows two American women, Liv (Jessica Henwick) and Hanna (Julia Garner), who find themselves backpacking through Australia, their funds running dry. Liv, the more adventurous of the two, persuades Hanna to take temporary jobs at the bar of The Royal Hotel, a decaying establishment seemingly located in the middle of nowhere. The bar’s owner, Billy (Hugo Weaving), has a habit of hiring young girls, almost as an added attraction for the rowdy, obnoxious blue-collar clientele who frequent the place. In fact, a pair of British girls is seen leaving as Hanna and Liv arrive, with one offering a foreboding piece of advice: “Just say ‘yes’!” This sets a disconcerting tone, but the true horrors lie in the boorish behavior of the local patrons. However, it’s important to note that Green does not attempt to paint all men as monsters in her portrayal.
Despite the grim atmosphere, there is a seemingly decent guy named Matty (Toby Wallace), who accompanies the women for a swim in a nearby lake and appears to take a liking to Hanna. Yet, things sour when he becomes overly aggressive after a night of drinking, leading to an apology the next day. Another character, Teeth (James Frecheville), is a bit surly but relatively tolerable compared to a bar regular named Dolly (Daniel Henshall), who embodies menace throughout, resembling the antagonist in a Western. A terrifying encounter with Dolly in the bar one night pushes Hanna to her limit, prompting her to approach Liv and suggest leaving. However, Liv downplays the situation, fully aware of the excessive drinking culture and determined to make the most of her adventure at the Royal, even if it means getting a bit too intoxicated on occasion, much to Hanna’s discomfort.
Billy, who also struggles with alcoholism, unscrupulously dips into the girls’ tip jar for his own gain, hardly earning the title of a “nice guy.” His girlfriend, Carol (Ursula Yovich), who also works at the bar, is understanding toward Billy but reaches her breaking point with the place’s unruly patrons. When things spiral out of control, Hanna decides to take matters into her own hands, quite literally, wielding an axe as Green intensifies the drama.
Julia Garner, who previously starred in Green’s “The Assistant,” delivers a remarkable performance as Hanna, a young woman who was never enthusiastic about working at the Royal but tries to maintain a positive outlook on what remains of their vacation. British actress Jessica Henwick is perfectly cast as Liv, the more carefree and adventurous friend, who perhaps should have heeded her BFF’s warnings a bit sooner. Australian acting legend Hugo Weaving excels as Billy, a character filled with misogynistic attitudes and derogatory language toward women, aware that his establishment is a dive yet turning a blind eye to unruly customers.
The production design by Leah Popple and the cinematography by Michael Latham create a pitch-perfect atmosphere, one that tourists would be wise to avoid at all costs. Green exhibits a keen filmmaking talent, confidently managing the escalating drama and expertly conveying the perils of excessive alcohol consumption. Although the film reaches a crescendo that takes it into unexpected territory towards the end, the final shot provides a satisfying conclusion. Contrasting “The Royal Hotel” with the quiet, slow-burning style of “The Assistant” showcases Green’s versatility and leaves audiences eager to see what she has in store next. It’s evident that she is emerging as a significant feminist voice in the film industry, based on these two recent films. Importantly, “The Royal Hotel” doesn’t fall into the trap of presenting a one-sided “I hate all men” narrative; it also attempts to show that some men can exhibit humanity, even in their darkest moments.