‘The Royal Hotel’: Kitty Green and Julia Garner Reunite for a Different Kind of Toxic Workplace Nightmare

American tourists Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) run out of money on the flip side of the world, bounce deeper into the Australian Outback to earn their way back, and fight to retain their identities and sanity. Director Kitty Green’s second feature, “The Royal Hotel,” puts its money where cult films like 1978’s “I Spit on Your Grave” live, suffer, and die horrific fates. But “The Royal Hotel” is more than a horror movie. It evokes the Sam Peckinpah classic standoff film, “Straw Dogs,” with a “Deliverance” chaser.  

Co-written with Oscar Redding, “The Royal Hotel” is loosely inspired by director Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary “Hotel Coolgardie.” Those vacationing Scandinavian women were in their 20s when they worked in an off-the-beaten-path pub, which was the central drinking hole for a remote mining town. Green started in documentaries, and “The Royal Hotel” benefits from her devotion to realism and sensitivity to geographical relativity. In relation to the film, Outback Australians don’t believe a setting like the Royal Hotel is particularly daunting, it’s rather routine, and for the first half hour, Liv and Hanna experience a stigma-free visit to the Outback. News can be slow, and press about #MeToo hasn’t reached town.

This is Green’s second collaboration with Garner after “The Assistant.” Loosely based on the Harvey Weinstein abuses, “The Assistant” was set in an entirely different physical space of corporate boardrooms, offices and cubicles. But the same atmosphere pervades in this Outback bar. “The Royal Hotel” is far more viscerally affecting than “The Assistant.” Each setting is commonplace, the most frightening place to be in a perilous situation. Except, possibly, the great outdoors, miles from crowded civilization. It makes for a vast claustrophobic psychological thriller.

The Royal Hotel is remote. Hanna and Liv travel by boat, train, bus, and the car belonging to the bar’s co-owner, Carol (Ursula Yovich), the true hero of this story. The closest building is a six hour drive, we hear at one point. Green uses the location to pay visual homage to the classic Western genre films made by director John Ford.  South Australia is barren, but picturesque. The wasteland amplifies the horror by giving it so much space it is hard to discern laughter from scream. The locations are beautiful one minute, foreboding the next. It has nothing to do with lighting or time of day, but of circumstances, and anticipation of irreconcilable consequences. “The Royal Hotel” is not set in a rural community. It is just rural. Mining towns fly people in for the job. The residents move on. They are transients, like Hanna and Liv, who have been dreaming of Bondi Beach all along, only in her dreams she can pronounce it. The pair decide to bartend at the Royal Hotel for a few weeks.

If toxic masculinity had a bar, it would be the pub in the Royal Hotel lobby. It is owned by the debt-buried and abusive Billy (Hugo Weaving), a relatively high-functioning alcoholic whose one useful skill is violence. An aboriginal to the land, his sometimes-reluctant partner Carol repeatedly pours out his drinks, and tells Billy to pay her brother, the vegetable vendor, Tommy (Baykali Ganambarr). The audience can feel the desire to leave the grounds emanate from Tommy.

The Royal Hotel pub is not the Overlook Hotel bar of Steven King’s “The Shining.” It was probably quite grand when Billy’s grandfather opened it, but it is now dilapidated. The new tenants are bystanders. They are innocent, for the most part, or as the locals would call them: “Fresh Meat.” Much like Carole keeps Billy in line and occasionally upright, Garner’s Hanna is forced to be the responsible friend, which gets her branded sour. Liv, who tells everyone she and her friend are from Canada because “everyone loves Canadians,” just wants distance from her past, even at the cost of all of Hanna’s money. Even a casual onlooker can see missed opportunities and growing resentment.

The film puts together an uncanny representative ensemble cast. Each make good first impressions, Matty (Toby Wallace) turns a bad come-on into a sweet invitation for Hanna, taking the visiting pair to a waterfall oasis, complete with a wild Kangaroo race along a long gravel road with no other traffic for miles. Teeth (James Frecheville) is full of useful tips, but keeps tabs on favors owed. At first, Dolly (Daniel Henshall) just wants to take in the action, while maintaining his position as the central attraction.

Entitlement is fueled by alcohol at the Royal Hotel, and Green captures the unpredictable energy of the room. Every joke has an edge of cruelty, and when Torsten (Herbert Nordrum), Hanna’s Norwegian yachting friend, and an outsider to the group, calls her a “sour cunt,” the film moves into contagion territory. These women are safe from no one. Even the towering gentle giant, Teeth, who throttles Liv’s attacker, has to have cold water dumped on him to realize just because he’s the last man standing at the bar doesn’t mean he gets the barmaid as a booby prize at the end of the night.

Even though it is not a foreign film, “The Royal Hotel” needs subtitles for American ears, probably for some Australians as well. So much is being said around the bar, it always feels like something, probably dirty, is lost in translation. This adds charm, because it requires a little bit of imagination to fill in the blanks. The locale, and locals, bring their own renegade glamor, which wears off just prior to the halfway mark. One revelation brings an entire world of possibilities into focus, and it is a small world, after all. It gets smaller by the moment as Green focuses on the tiniest of details for the largest mindfucks. A simple gesture from a marauder, as Hanna lay with her eye bashed in on a floor, would have said so much the silence is deafening. Still, it is a passing note in a glissando of danger. 

Masterful sound design immerses the viewer into the environment. Underlying the happy cacophony of the pub, a tone of menace creaks through the floorboards. Usually that’s Billy, face down on the floor. His introduction is less than luminary, commending Hanna on being smart, with a backhanded verbal slap. Liv explains meanings change in other cultures, and the vulgarity is shelved, temporarily, even as Hanna is immediately confronted by belligerent dumpster graffiti. Henwick allows the viewer to watch as Liv jumps from big mistake to disastrous decision with almost every affirmation she offers. It is emotional eavesdropping. The actor brings raw truth to every choice. 

Garner gives an expertly measured performance, saying much more by holding back, whether turning down a drink to stave off a genetic predisposition for alcoholism, or mentally overpowering a belligerent drunk who can physically destroy her without straining a muscle. “The Royal Hotel” routinely subverts genre expectations. There isn’t a hint of terror when Carol picks up the young work-for-stay vacationers from the bus station. The two exiting English girls, Jules (Alex Malone) and Cassie (Kate Cheel), not only aren’t mysterious, their farewell party is enjoyed by one and all. They play along with the miners, table dancing and flashing the most appreciative patrons, leaving any inhibition at the door, and a big tip in the jar. They move on safely. They don’t disappear. The only blemish in “The Royal Hotel” is an all-too familiar closing shot, even if it does contain a nonchalant final twist.  

“The Royal Hotel” is viscerally distressing even though it is predominantly obvious. The audience always knows what is coming, but it is still impossible to predict. The film is masterfully constructed, unsettling, almost out-of-control, and you may never hear Kylie Minogue the same way again. Garner and Henrick each put in emotionally vulnerable performances which elevate the film in each of the genres it touches.

The Royal Hotel” releases Oct. 6 in select theaters.