The Royal Hotel (2023)

Creepy ‘Royal Hotel’ accommodates plenty of thrills

The best horror movies are those in which the haunted house is situated inside our inventive minds, where terrors reside at the intersection of assumption and expectation. Such is the property known as “The Royal Hotel,” where it’s all about location, location, location.

The address is Australia’s desolate outback, where men are men and women are objects of ogling at best and sexual assault at worst. This is the hellish terrain where Aussie director Kitty Green has deposited us for a 90-minute exercise in which what plays out on screen seldom jibes with what we fear will befall two very naive Canadian backpackers in Julia Garner’s Hanna and Jessica Henwick’s Liv. So cash-strapped are the pair that they defy their better instincts and accept a job serving liquor to a hoard of sex-starved miners in a region of Down Under where #MeToo is merely an expression of agreement.

Fending off these thirsty – in more ways than one – wolves not only requires around-the-clock vigilance, it also demands checking all you’ve learned about feminism at the entrance to a testosterone-fueled inferno. Liv, the more adventurous of the two, implores her travel companion to keep an open mind. How bad can it be, she reasons. Pretty bad, as they learn almost immediately.

Lucky for the duo, there’s a long bar separating them from the “enemy” in what amounts to a form of trench warfare in which the males hurl sexual innuendos ranging from the mild (requesting Dickins cider) to all-out crude. Surely, the pub’s owner, Billy (a heavily bearded and unrecognizable Hugo Weaving), will demand the “boys” cool it. Well, he might, on the rare occasion he’s sober enough to utter such a request. Meanwhile, Billy’s partner, the indigenous Carol (Ursula Yovich), largely seethes and endures the abominable behavior from the sanctuary of the creaky establishment’s kitchen.

There’s nothing novel about the set-up. What’s interesting is how Green and her co-writer, Oscar Redding, toy with the warped way our minds have been trained to subjectively evaluate such situations. It’s normal to be disgusted, but is it reasonable to constantly anticipate something awful happening at any second? Are we so conditioned to believe that all men might be capable of sexual violence that we accept it as a fact of nature?

You bet we are, and the filmmakers indulge that thought so persistently that we’re thrust into a perpetual state of anxiety so heightened that we wait – futilely – for the other shoe to drop. It says as much about men as it does about women and the stereotypes associated with our respective behaviors. It’s so pervasive that neither Liv nor Hanna can determine where the true threats exist. It’s enough to drive you mad, which it does with Hanna, who trusts no one, not even herself.

Garner, who mesmerized in Green’s previous feature, the riveting, Harvey Weinstein shaming, “The Assistant,” has a field day with the role, juxtaposing Hanna’s wits and moxie with her illogical sense of unease. For Henwick’s Liv, it’s the complete opposite. She revels in the boorish attention and recognizes that she holds the upper hand, despite being vastly outnumbered. She’s rational, yet our instincts, correct or not, compel us to adopt Hanna’s paranoid view of the situation.

Are her deep-seated worries justifiable? Green never quite answers that probing question, opting to punt to us. It’s all part of her strategy to deflect and disorient. It begins almost instantly, as we catch up with Hanna and Liz in what appears to be a hot Sydney night spot. But following Liv up a set of stairs in search of Hanna, we’re suddenly dazzled by bright sunlight. It’s not a nightclub at all; it’s a booze cruise. Green plays that same card of perception versus reality over and over to magnificent effect. Where she stumbles is in her seeming lack of compassion for her characters, particularly the men, none of whom you’d want to take home to Mom. But is that fair?

The film is based on Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary, “Hotel Coolgardie,” in which two young Finnish women actually suffered the same sexual slings and arrows as Liv and Hanna. It no doubt feeds Green’s judgment that there’s chauvinism in numbers, intensified when it’s dozens of drunken men taunting two young women captive inside a rowdy pub. Get one of these guys named Teeth, Matty or Dolly alone for a sunny afternoon of pleasant conversation, and they are actually sweet and caring. Why is that? Green doesn’t seem to know exactly, but she’s certain it’s a fact.

What does it all mean? If Green has the answer, she’s not sharing, at least not in an objective way. I felt a tinge of resentment toward her ambiguity, compounded by a cop-out ending more contentious than cathartic. Yet, I remain awestruck by her ability to subtly embolden an audience to look inward. And what we envision most often is a house of horrors of our own design.

Movie review

The Royal Hotel

Rated: R for language throughout, sexual content, nudity

Cast: Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Hugo Weaving and Ursula Yovich

Director: Kitty Green

Writer: Kitty Green and Oscar Redding

Runtime: 91 minutes

Grade: B+

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