‘The Royal Hotel’ Review: Kitty Green Reunites With ‘The Assistant’ Star Julia Garner in Riveting Thriller

Telluride 2023: Garner and Jessica Henwick lead the way with guts and muscle in this unnerving and atmospheric genre exercise

"The Royal Hotel"
"The Royal Hotel" (CREDIT: TIFF)

In Kitty Green’s brilliant narrative feature debut “The Assistant,” it would have been appropriate for the film’s mostly silent and tormented junior associate (Julia Garner) to pick up an axe or burn down the whole damn place in response to the emotional torture she’d been subjected to in an unglamorous yet high-profile film production office.

Structured with metronomic perfection, “The Assistant” wasn’t that thriller, however—instead, it was a quietly harrowing one that kept you screaming on the inside. “The Royal Hotel,” on the other hand, is that thriller where Green flexes her genre muscles impeccably.

Also starring a flawless Julia Garner—this time, alongside an equally terrific Jessica Henwick—Green’s sophomore narrative is once again focused on the distresses and perils of being a young woman in the world, polluted by the dangerous gaze and entitlement of men. It’s a wild ride start to finish, elevated by a healthy dose of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” vibes, a pinch of ‘90s-style indie pulp, as well as a nod to the Australian cult flick, “Wake in Fright.”

But before that atmosphere arrives in Green’s handsomely shot nail-biter, we meet Garner’s Hanna and Henwick’s Liv at a dark rave club—loud music, flashing lights and exuberance captivate the two besties as they drink and dance over a long take that Green masterfully commands alongside cinematographer Michael Latham.

But when the camera follows a broke Liv with a recently declined credit card outside, we realize, with sudden bewilderment, that it’s actually in the middle of the day in Sydney and they’re on a ship with the view of the opera house on the horizon. The travelers are on a backpacking adventure working their way from place to place—and if the emptied account balance is any indication, it’s already time for their next gig.

“You will need to be okay with a little male attention,” they are told about the only available job as live-in bartenders in some remote bar at a mining town. That proves to be a bit of an understatement once the duo arrives at the titular spot, which feels only as welcoming as The Slaughtered Lamb. The place is a storied pub perched on infertile land, overflowing with nighttime customers without much to do other than getting drunk.

For a while, Green lets us soak in the atmosphere—gritty on the inside with living spaces grossly soiled by a pair of English girls on their way out, and barren on the outside, with only the vague premise of some kangaroo sightings. It’s evident on every corner of “The Royal Hotel” that Green thinks cinematically in the old-school sense.

Establishing aerial shots help us take in the alarmingly uninhabited scenery with a sense of unease and anticipation. Whereas the interiors themselves, through Leah Popple’s lived-in production design of clutter, dirt, dead snakes conserved in jars and various other rich details, plunge us into a sense of claustrophobia and restlessness.

And the male attention is there, alright. There is Billy (Hugo Weaving) for starters, the often-drunk proprietor all too eager to stiff his suppliers (chief of them played by Baykali Ganambarr) and employees, and aggravate his silently fuming partner Carol (Ursula Yovich). There is the unknowable Matty (Toby Wallace of Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders”), who sets his sights on Hanna, and creepy stalker Dolly (Daniel Henshall), who emerges at inappropriate times of the night like a ghost at The Overlook, intimidating Liv and Hanna with a greasy grin.

There is also Teeth (James Frecheville), who asks Liv out in a gentlemanly manner that gets a good laugh from a bar full of heavy boozers. And finally there is Torsten, a fellow backpacker the women have met on the ship who shows up unannounced one day and at least, for a while, is most welcome.

The most brilliant aspect of the script, penned jointly by Green and Oscar Redding, is its flair with sketching out the ups and downs of Hanna and Liv’s friendship. A Thelma to Hanna’s Louise, we swiftly learn that Liv is the more trusting, adamant about honoring their original intention to have an adventure together. Hanna is more of a skeptic—the child of a heavy-drinker, she doesn’t touch alcohol and makes it known, more than once, that she would like to abandon the Royal Hotel gig and go lie on a beach somewhere.

As the male figures’ loyalties shift across days spent by waterfalls and nights unfolding around the busy bar (often with uproarious Aussie humor), we are no longer sure whom they should trust or stay away from. Hanna increasingly and understandably trusts no one, as Green dials up the gut-churning tension with the kind of meticulously calibrated, unnerving discomfort she is a master of. Liv, meanwhile, displays a more laidback attitude, a disposition that eventually clashes with Hanna’s wariness over the escalating anxieties of Liv’s birthday party.

Throughout, Green’s camera remains snaky, muscular and intentional, as she pits her fearless women travelers against the lurking threat posed by maddening men. The massive relief of an ending Green gifts her audience is as fun and explosive as it gets—once the rightful female rage is ignited, beware!

“The Royal Hotel” will be distributed by Neon.