Through smartly restrained directing that keeps you hooked on the potential for danger, The Royal Hotel breathes new life into its familiar themes.
Australia is home to some of the deadliest creatures on the planet, from crocodiles to snakes to box jellyfish … and the most dangerous of all, drunk, horny men. Which is where Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel comes in, inspired by the 2016 Pete Gleeson documentary Hotel Coolgardie. Two young backpackers Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) have run out of money and decide to get jobs at a bar at the Royal Hotel, located in a male-dominated town in the Australian outback. As you’d sadly almost always assume, many of the male patrons and even their supervisor (Hugo Weaving) show disrespect towards them, and as relationships and interactions escalate in intensity, Hanna begins fearing for their safety.
I’m actually familiar with Kitty Green as a director, having seen her last film The Assistant a couple of years ago. Though it was well received overall and has some great merits, I personally didn’t care for it too much. Luckily, that isn’t the case with The Royal Hotel, as Green’s taken some well-worn subject matter and injected her own unique voice to give the film a creepy life of its own.
The Royal Hotel has been described as a thriller, which is … technically correct. But it’s probably not the kind that most would think of when they hear that word. The film isn’t filled with many events that could be described as intense or urgent, but a majority of it has you on edge thinking that something intense or urgent could be about to happen. The girls might be in serious danger, or Hanna might be about to snap. But then again, a few of the patrons they befriend might be good people when their boisterous exteriors are pulled back, but that may or may not supersede their drunken states.
I can see a version of The Royal Hotel where every male character is nothing more than a one-dimensional stereotype that’s not even trying to hide what a scumbag he is. And make no mistake, almost no man in this movie is a decent person when push really comes to shove. But they still feel like people, with nuanced personalities and ways of carrying themselves that change with any given situation. When a character goes from rude to friendly to rude again or even detestable, they always feel like the same person instead of suddenly turning on a dime to fit the film’s themes.
It helps that not a lot of the crappy behavior towards Hanna and Liv is aggressively terrible. There are cat calls, teases, and innuendos thrown at them, but only rarely does anything happen that’s severely sexist. But ultimately, that doesn’t matter: these women shouldn’t have to be dealing with this behavior at all. Whether it’s death by an atom bomb or a thousand paper cuts, it’s still death. Which is why when it keeps piling on, little by little, through what would just be minor irritations in single, isolated cases, the moments where Hanna finally snaps feel completely justified. Neither the writing nor the performances flaunt themselves, staying underscored to make the stay at this hotel feel as realistic as possible.
I singled out Hanna just now because Liv takes a much more outwardly go-with-the-flow approach to everything that happens to her. She’s established right away as being the more outgoing and flirtatious of the two anyway, so she doesn’t seem to be as bothered by the softer displays of misogyny. This puts her at odds with Hanna and points out the different levels of acceptance and even occasional enjoyment any two people, even ones of the same status, can feel towards a given situation. But when the men’s behavior reaches truly unacceptable levels, you realize that even Liv is about to be forcibly pushed beyond her tolerance levels, showing just how slowly yet relentlessly this place can break anyone’s will.
The set design alone tells its own story, which is something Kitty Green herself said was the intention. The Royal Hotel itself is established to not have always been the run-down cesspool that we see it as, and when you look around at each room, that shows. Through its visible age, architecture, and debris laying, this looks like a place that used to be upstanding and, well, royal, but through neglect and abuse has fallen to the state it’s in now. Maybe its physical decline led to only rougher crowds showing up, or maybe those rougher crowds are what caused the decline. Either way, it’s only a few of steps away from resembling a rotting corpse of a building, and just looking at the place instantly makes you not want to be there.
The constant presence of consumed alcohol also raises even more ambiguity as to whether the foul men are behaving so troublingly just by their nature, or if it’s their drunken state that brings it out, almost like the hotel itself and its contents have an effect on their minds. Again, though, it doesn’t matter. (And I personally believe that alcohol doesn’t magically make someone an asshole, but that’s just me.) The problem exists, and it’s a shame that any innocent person has to experience it and run increasingly out of ways to feel safe.
In the film’s final minutes, the figurative and literal explosion that you know is coming feels as naturally built up as possible. It’s a near-flawless execution of a slow burn that could have easily been avoided had just one person managed to put a damper on the mess that ends up forming. The Royal Hotel doesn’t really say anything new, but it says it in such a restrained yet effective way that you can still get a new experience out of it. It shows the main characters’ struggles without victimizing or exploiting them, and it shows the toxicity of those around them without stripping them of their humanity. A lot of films can’t find that middle ground, but The Royal Hotel pulls it off and proves itself worthy of a tight 90-minute stay.
The Royal Hotel premiered at TIFF on September 11, 2023 and will be released in US theaters on October 6.