By James Murphy
Kitty Green’s psychological thriller, The Royal Hotel, inspired by events captured in 2016 documentary Hotel Coolgardie, as it is a demonstration of how important it is for a culture to see its own reflection, even when it is in the pub mirror after far too many drinks.
The Royal Hotel scene is all too familiar: two young, naïve female backpackers, played by Ozark’s Julia Garner and Iron Fist’s Jennifer Henwick, arrive in the red dirt of regional Australia chasing spending money as bar maids at a dilapidated mining town bar, owned by Hugo Weaving, who plays the fish-in-water this time, three decades after playing the reverse in Priscilla. Kitty Green’s characters, though, are not caricatures: the threat is not a comic book-esque villain or a lone masked slasher; the threats are everyone and everywhere; the danger is the Fly-In-Fly-Out culture, or, perhaps, the toxic male pub and drinking culture more generally.
When Garner’s Hanna and Henwick’s Liv arrive at The Royal, they are greeted by two hungover British bar maids on their final day. The Brits survived (or even thrived) by playing along: by drinking hard, flashing their boobs, giving in to the persistent male advances from across the bar. The bonds of oppression, though, are only visible when they are resisted. Hanna is the resistance; Liv is open to persuasion, and the pair deliver nuanced performances, adding depth to characters whose personal histories back home are only hinted at. It is Green’s willingness to ease back on the exposition, to offer glimpses and mysteries without feeling the need to resolve them all, that make this a compelling watch.
The army of wolves in high vis, with their swag bag full of pick-up tricks designed to ensnare the “fresh meat” are a rogue’s gallery that is likely all too familiar to any female who has worked behind or stepped into an Aussie bar. Like with internet dating, some characters are instantly objectionable; others, it takes a few meetings for the ulterior motives and character defects to become visible. Each personality, though, is recognizable; sometimes painfully so. Catharsis does not occur in a film like this, because the villain is not some evil other: it’s all of us. The Royal Hotel asks, where do we begin to burn it all down?