Following up her exceptional narrative feature debut The Assistant from 2020, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green is back with what could be described as another workplace thriller. Trading the frigid interiors of New York for the sweltering expanse of the Outback, The Royal Hotel is obviously rougher around the edges by comparison but still playing with the same themes of gender politics and power dynamics. Holding the center of both films is Julia Garner, a terrific actress familiar to many for her award-winning work as Ruth Langmore in the Netflix series Ozark. There’s never any guessing what’s on Ruth’s mind; she’s an emotionally explosive character and eminently watchable as such. But seeing Garner in this pair of films, it’s fascinating seeing how much she can drive the trajectory of a story even in more restrained performances.
In The Royal Hotel, Hanna (Garner) and her best friend Liv (Jessica Henwick) are a duo of young Americans who find themselves low on funds during their work travel program. Desperate for cash, they agree to a bartending gig in a remote Australian town populated mainly by unrefined miners;”you’re gonna have to be okay with a little male attention,” an employment officer cautions them ahead of their assignment. They’re driven to their new workplace/living quarters The Royal Hotel, a run-down pub run by the perpetually drunk or hungover Billy (Hugo Weaving) and his much more reliable cook Carol (Ursula Yovich). Hanna and Liv try to make the best of the unsavory situation, keeping their heads down while cracking open longnecks for roughnecks, but the advances of the male patrons push the undesirable circumstances into even more hostile territory.
One of the challenges in watching The Royal Hotel is in restraining oneself from asking the question “why don’t they just get out of there?” every five minutes. In that way, it may play more like a slasher movie than a traditional psychological thriller but along with co-writer Oscar Redding, Green comes with just enough justifications to sustain the film’s taut 91-minute runtime. Most of these are spoken by Liv, the more adventurous of the two travelers and the most seemingly oblivious with the squalor of their surroundings; “that’ll be us in a few weeks,” Liv jokes as an over-served female flasher is being pulled down from dancing atop the bar. Just because Hanna is the more level-headed of the two and more of an audience surrogate doesn’t mean that she isn’t given just as many chances to hightail it out of the dilapidated bar.
If The Royal Hotel is somewhat disappointing in comparison to The Assistant, it’s the fact that the subjects and threats here are a bit more shallow and less intellectually engaging. The toxic masculinity and permissible behavior on display at the film production company where The Assistant takes place lead to chilling conversations with startling subtext. Yes, it’s more believable that the surly men in The Royal Hotel would hurl salty language across the pub as opposed to sneaking veiled threats but there isn’t quite as much nuance in their menace. The most overtly intimidating of the patrons, an ironically named Dolly (played by Daniel Henshall), is highlighted in one of the movie’s best scenes where he spoils the wedding anniversary of a couple who mistakenly visits the bar. The sequence best demonstrates how quickly a sour situation can escalate and the film could have used a few more tactfully-deployed examples to match it.
Nevertheless, Green’s direction again displays her aptitude for simmering thrillers that get under our skin and slowly set up a final act with explosive outcomes. Garner proves key to the formula once again, her Hanna ever so slightly revealing degrees of separation between herself and the more free-spirited Liv. Knowing the kind of powder keg performances that she’s given in the past, it’s exciting to see how much pent-up rage Garner will let come through in her character. Henwick’s performance is the more laid-back of the two and when she’s not volleying sexist jabs from bawdy bar dwellers, she has some fun bits of levity; I was tickled by the moment where she treats a box of white wine like manna from heaven. It’s no tourist ad for the land down under but The Royal Hotel is worth checking into for a tense and thrilling trip.
Score – 3.5/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering only in theaters is Killers Of The Flower Moon, a Western epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro about a 1920s FBI investigation involving members of the Osage tribe in northeastern Oklahoma being murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Coming to Netflix is Old Dads, a comedy starring Bill Burr and Bobby Cannavale about three best friends who become fathers later in life and find themselves out-of-step with the millennial-invested modern world.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Silver Dollar Road, a documentary covering a hotly-contested waterfront property in North Carolina owned by a Black family who have been harassed for decades by land developers looking to claim it for themselves.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup