We are barely 12 minutes into Kitty Green’s “The Royal Hotel” before the first C-word is dropped, but it isn’t gratuitous. The film’s language, dominated by the braying of obnoxious, bellies-to-the-bar boozehounds, is both spice and thickening agent in its pervasive mood of clammy menace. Our reward for enduring this relentless churn of apprehension is not the one we anticipate.
Teasing expectations — to some viewers’ ultimate disappointment, no doubt — is much of what this keenly calibrated thriller is about, the familiarity of its setup raising our most bloodthirsty horror-movie hopes. Place two young, attractive female backpackers in a forlorn mining town somewhere in the Australian Outback; surround them with sex-starved, boorish miners; allow them no access to cell service or reliable transport. Their ensuing trials are a cyst that Green and her co-writer, Oscar Redding, take their sweet time to lance.
Until then, we must gnaw our fingernails as Hanna and Liv (Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick, both terrific) refresh their finances by working as live-in bartenders in the titular establishment. The hotel’s dilapidation — to say nothing of its grubby, grabby, mostly male clientele — is a far cry from the yacht parties the women were recently enjoying in Sydney. The bar owner (an indispensable Hugo Weaving) is a raging alcoholic, yet his girlfriend (Ursula Yovich) seems kind and possibly protective. And while one regular (Daniel Henshall) is frankly terrifying, another (Toby Wallace) is so clean and cute that his off-color humor is easier to ignore. At what point should the women feel alarmed enough to leave?
That question haunts every frame of a movie that persistently taunts us with the likelihood of male violence, its blasted landscapes and aura of desolation pumped relentlessly by Michael Latham’s brooding cinematography. Green, in her second collaboration with Garner (after the similarly themed — if significantly less raucous — “The Assistant” in 2020), is proving a cool chronicler of workplace abuse and the kind of harassment that disguises itself as harmless fun. Sometimes a woman’s only defense is to trust the pricking skin and spasming gut that warns her otherwise.
Inspired by Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary about two Finnish backpackers, “Hotel Coolgardie,” “The Royal Hotel” is after something more subtle than pure horror. In its destabilizing presentation of men whose motivations appear to shift from scene to scene — the women’s fun-loving English predecessors seem genuinely sorry to leave — it places the audience on a knife edge. This, along with the general drunkenness and the bar’s oppressive gloom, can be exhausting; but Green, filming for the first time in her native Australia, displays such a sure hand with the movie’s tone that even her brief slips into genre cliché (like a surprise snake and a convenient storm) inflict minimal damage. Her overtly feminist climax, though, feels more problematic, a betrayal of the movie’s carefully drawn ambiguities and concern for its more vulnerable characters. Hanna and Liv were never looking for a fight; all they really wanted was to see some kangaroos.
The Royal Hotel
Rated R for female skin and men with a skinful. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.