The Royal Hotel
See-Saw Films, 2023
Oscar Redding / Kitty Green
📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock
Suspenseful and intense thrillers
Movies and TV shows about drugs or with disorienting presentations
A couple of years ago, I went on a cross-country trip with a group of four friends on a school bus (long story). At one point, we stopped at a remote motel in the middle of Nebraska and noticed a couple of strangers scoping out our vehicle, which had all of our stuff in it. Two of my friends, both female, stayed outside at one point to watch the bus, and I felt compelled to also stand guard. When I joined them, one said, “Chris…are you watching us watch the bus?” I very dryly replied, “Yeah.” As we continued our conversation, she mentioned a study she read showing that significantly more women than men feel uncomfortable in social settings. It was a sobering reality that did not surprise me at all to hear. This conversation came to mind as I watched Kitty Green’s new suspenseful indie, The Royal Hotel.
This See-Saw Films production follows Hanna (Julia Garner, Ozark) and Liv (Jessica Henwick, Glass Onion), two backpacking Canadian friends who decide to vacation in Australia. Their travel agent sets them up at a rural bar attached to a hotel that is just outside a mining town. In order to save money for their vacation, they agree to bartend at the pub for a few weeks. Once they arrive and begin working, they discover that the regulars at the bar are not only rowdy but dangerous and predatory. As they debate whether to stay or go, they find themselves in compromising situations night after night with steadily heightening stakes.
The Royal Hotel stands as a strong examination of drinking culture and toxic masculinity’s impacts on women. While it comes off as a thriller with horror elements, there is nothing fantastical or escapist about it. Many women have personal stories that resemble any one of the encounters that happen in the movie. What the film illustrates is how mildly bad behavior can escalate to dangerous and criminal based on environment, state of mind and familiarity. On their first night, Hanna and Liv tolerate crass jokes, demanding patrons and spontaneous bar top dancing. As the male regulars get more comfortable, their behavior quickly turns to sexual advances, harassment, and violence. Hanna in particular goes from feeling annoyed and angered on the first few nights to severely frightened. She fails to convince Liv to flee the town early on, paving the way for the tumultuous days that follow.
Liv serves as the more forgiving character who parrots catchphrases and enabling language that excuse bad behavior. When Hanna says that she does not trust one of the volatile bar regulars, Liv says, “He’s just lonely” and “Why can’t you just give him a chance?” These are phrases often aimed at women who reject men’s advances and get held accountable for how poorly the men take it. Similarly, when Hanna is ready to leave right away, Liv says, “Let’s just put up with it for a few more weeks.” Her comment highlights how women are faced with the choices of tolerating bad behavior or leaving rather than men being forced to behave more appropriately.
While the co-leads are female, the film also consists of male characters that encapsulate different aspects of toxic masculinity. One of the regulars at the bar plies Liv with drinks on multiple occasions, hoping to get her away from the sober and protective Hanna and into his car. In one particular scene, he yells at an older couple who turns down his offer to pay for another round of their champagne, highlighting the unhealthy aspect of drinking culture that refuses to accept moderation from others. Another character, normally more subdued and polite than his fellow patrons, violently protects Liv from harm, but only because he views her as a prize. This occurs days after he asks her out in front of the other patrons, a common lose-lose situation female bartenders are frequently placed in.
Billy, the bar owner played by Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), enables his patrons’ unruly behavior by refusing to confront them. He also suffers from substance abuse himself, leading to confrontations with his assistant manager and neglecting to pay his vendor for several months at a time. Rather than having any male character exist as a paragon of virtue, the patrons in The Royal Hotel display differing traits that contribute to the same larger problem. Their behaviors are consistently egged on by one another in the spirit of having a good time, and while their actions begin as micro-aggressions, they spiral into much more obvious, destructive and threatening conduct.
An important scene occurs when Liv interacts with the Aboriginal vendor (Baykali Ganambarr, The Nightingale) as he unloads his truck. While unspoken, it is obvious he understands the climate of the bar and what troubles she and Hanna. When Liv invites him to stick around for the night, he is immediately discouraged by one of the patrons helping to unload the truck. Obvious to both him and Liv is that if he joins them in The Royal Hotel, he will be ostracized and possibly harmed based on the color of his skin. Even when Liv connects with a purely intentioned male character, he is essentially scared away. Thus, she and Hanna are never accompanied by a sobering presence that can highlight how problematic everyone else’s behavior is.
The Royal Hotel would best be described as a psychological thriller and resembles the generally unsafe ambiances of folk horror films like Midsommar or Deliverance. However, it does not take place in a universe that’s easy to dismiss as high concept or surreal. Rather, the drinking culture and misogyny displayed are very grounded in reality. The community depicted in The Royal Hotel is isolated, but these same interactions happen in other environments as well. The film’s pervasively ominous atmosphere is most similar to the 1970s Dustin Hoffman film Straw Dogs. In that film, a couple visits the wife’s childhood town in rural England and encounters strange, threatening behavior from the townsfolk, many of whom are heavy drinkers. The same groupthink and substance abuse drives the action in both stories and shows that general rowdiness can quickly devolve into life-and-death scenarios.