In a remote Australian pub called The Royal Hotel, dead snakes sit in glass jars on the top shelf above the alcohol. However, the most venomous serpents in the establishment are the predominantly male patrons who sit on the other side of the bar nightly. In Kitty Green’s new thriller, The Royal Hotel, the dingy watering hole slowly becomes a house of horrors for two unsuspecting young tourists.
Looking to get away from their regular life, by going to the furthest place possible, Hannah (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) plan to spend their vacation backpacking and partying. When their money runs out while in Australia, they agree to take a job via a work travel program in a remote mining town where they will have to put up with “a little male attention.”
The attention they receive is far from minuscule though. Upon arriving at the rundown bar, where they will work and live, the women cannot help but notice the leering eyes of men sizing up the “fresh meat.” Owned by Billy (Hugo Weaving), an alcoholic who inherited the place from his father, and co-run by his partner Carol (Ursula Yovich), who is becoming increasingly weary of Billy’s drunk ways, the bar is home to a dedicated group of regulars. Customers who love nothing more than getting drunk and hitting on the female bar staff.
With the current bartenders, two women from England, approaching their last days, Hannah and Liv are thrown into the deep end without a life vest. Forced to quickly learn the local slang for drink orders and Billy’s colour-coded cash till system, the pair are subjected to plenty of sexist jokes and unsolicited advice. The latter of which often coming from the constantly sauced Glenda (Barbara Lowing), one of the few female regulars, who tells the women to smile more and show more cleavage if they hope to keep the customers happy.
While Liv takes all of this as simply a difference in cultural norms, Hannah cannot help but feel uneasy about the entire situation. Much of this is due to how little pushback there is to the men’s behaviour on the best of days, even women like Glenda seem to egg them on. When Billy does lay down the law and throw patrons out, his banishment does not last more than a couple of hours. His desire to make a profit far outweighs his concern for his staff.
Having only Carol to stand up for them, although she often has her hands full dealing with Billy’s latest drunken stupor, the women are frequently left to tend the bar themselves and navigate an array of men who are getting increasingly rowdier by the day.
A taut thriller that becomes more unnerving by the minute, The Royal Hotel finds plenty of chills in an environment where toxic masculinity is allowed to run rampant. Just as she did with The Assistant, Green constructs a riveting character study of the communal ways men’s worst impulses are not just embraced but amplified. Similar to subwoofers shaking the floor of a lively party, the testosterone vibrates through every section of the bar. The miners who frequent the establishment may range from seemingly harmless, Teeth (James Frecheville), to would-be Casanova, Matty (Toby Wallace), to straight up menacing, Dolly (Daniel Henshall), but Green makes it clear that they each part of the problem in their own ways.
As a pre-emptive response to those who will be quick to shout “not all men,” Green structures the film in a way that forces one to reflect on the various ways the harassment of women is perpetuated and nurtured in society. The men who knowingly sit back as lines are being crossed are just as dangerous to women as the predators who are hunting out in the open.
This constant awareness of the power dynamics, and the fact that any patron could pose a threat to the protagonists, only further heightens the film’s tension. It becomes increasingly apparent that the women are viewed as nothing more than uncharted land that many are determined to claim by any means. A fact that comes to a head when one of Liv’s drunken nights leads to a volatile standoff between Hannah and Dolly.
While Green scatters humour throughout to defuse the tension, such as when the women claim to be Canadian since people are nicer to Canadian tourists than Americans, one is always aware of the eerie vibe permeating the film. Although the ending does not satisfyingly payoff the great set up, Green gets her biting commentary across in heart-pulsing fashion. A taut thriller, The Royal Hotel will keep viewers on the edge of their seats from beginning to end.