The Royal Hotel
From The Ozarks To The Outbacks…
Perhaps, society has reached that stage where some of the most barbaric of everyday institutions are best challenged by simply striking a match and obliterating it to the ground. Australian writer/director Kitty Green hardly seems to me like the sort of person to promote war but I’d like to think she believes in fighting fire with fire when circumstances are extreme enough. Her new film certainly seems to think so.
The Royal Hotel opens with a financial inconvenience that morphs into a rabbit hole of a different kind of disruption than the film started with. It’s about the collapse of humility and how often the destabilization of basic order can spiral from the recycling of off-color jokes and the continuous consumption of alcohol.
At its center is a fantastic body of work from Julia Garner, possibly the most stress-induced role of the year, as Hanna who finds herself in a particular pit of snakes when she and her best friend Liv (Jessica Henwick) accept a bartending job in the rural desert outbacks of Australia after running out of money vacationing in Sydney. The Royal Hotel was released almost immediately after its premiere screenings at Telluride and Toronto because it’s been recognized as more than just a cautionary tale which at this point I’m not even confident that’s what it is. It’s a full-scope examination of a global culture seen from the angle of the snake’s prey while furiously swallowing the realization that laborers can never move through their work unbothered. When things go too far, the only way to go is even further and the prey is only along for the temporary ride of drunken satisfaction. It’s a tense and unsettling film that will likely hit too close to home for many and make their blood boil with memories. Yet, it builds to a well-deserved ending that makes the seclusion of the location all the more necessary.
Alcohol taunts Hanna and Liv just as the men who get too sloppy do. The quickening effects of every shot of vodka is a thorn in Hanna's side that she does not wish to prick as she makes her way carefully around every serving. She doesn’t ignore the taste of alcohol entirely but hints that problems with her mother make her nervous around the stuff. Liv on the other hand is more carefree and what the crass men call “loose”. As the rowdy busy evenings become routinely guaranteed, the unease any normal person would feel inside The Royal Hotel starts to soar and refuses to land back on the ground. Pub owner Billy (Hugo Weaving) never speaks as though he hasn’t just drunk like a camel in the desert. Liv shrugs it off and the nervous Hanna is instructed by Billy to smile and not be a “Sour cunt”.
The harassment and drunken screaming rages on. Billy’s fed-up years-long suffering girlfriend Carol (Ursula Yovich) who is also the pub’s main cook shouts at Billy to pay the girls and the ignored delivery driver. He responds to her insistence with laughter and injures himself in a drunken fall and as Carol gets him in the car to take him to the nearest hospital, she warns Hanna to make as much money as she can as quickly as possible and leave.
The Royal Hotel’s portrayal of bar/pub culture is extraordinarily procedural. Nothing sells more than liquor and employees never matter in places like this. As long as the customers pay, they can do and say anything they please. The image of the messes Hanna and Liv keep having to clean up can't be erased from my mind even as I close my eyes. As they drag themselves out of bed after a long tedious night serving these loud-mouth drunkards, they come to work in the morning to clean up vomit and blood and any other excrement. Walking into a back room to find two people having sex and slamming the door in shock. Having your arms feel like noodles from carrying heavy glasses, kegs of beer, and hundreds of bottles of liquor and always ALWAYS spraying down stains - And NOT the accidental kind.
Many people can’t simply walk away from that kind of work because they need it so badly and so they stay years in environments and with people who take their surrender for granted. Carol’s wasted nearly half her life in The Royal Hotel and only because of that can she finally take her leave when her line gets crossed for the last time.
Rarely has a film ever captured so sharply the accuracy of the customer service transaction: Disrespect for a paycheck that the Owner begrudgingly pays out. It’s NEVER about the workers. It’s ALWAYS about what more can they do for the Owner as they are seen as unworthy and lucky to have this job.
Green’s first film “The Assistant” in which Garner portrays the “Fix It Girl” for a Harvey Weinstein-like boss played out very much the same. Music is never in the background unless it’s crucial. Green likes her audiences to pay attention to how big a part, sound plays in these places. The absence of music can sometimes make audiences look closer at a character's reaction. As in the case of the closeup of Hanna when she sees a dead snake in a glass jar with her name on it put there by a rowdy man she kicked out the night before.
It may seem like Green knows for certain how all this mistreatment is going to end but her presence as the director looms largely throughout her films, particularly this one. She’s never self-certain or preachy and every cringey moment stretches out like elastic for minutes on end due to the different levels of ambiguities she presents. Yes, there’s a huge problem to be dealt with and the problem can’t be put out with one fire but that’s just not what matters here. Green is not looking to communicate with these places, she’s looking to interrogate them. To shine a bright light in the face of it all and ask “How much longer do you think things can go on like this? … Quite a while, unfortunately.
Garner and Green have quite the partnership and the significance of the supporting cast is always acknowledged in every framing. It wouldn’t surprise me if all the actors who play the various men (And women, Green makes damn well sure to showcase that under the hands of alcohol, harassment of any kind is not gender specific) truly drank that much to-go method as I always felt they were just about to collapse to the ground and continue to slur their words. The way they throw tips at Hanna, and their laughter is just horrifying. The rage eventually numbs her from the stress of it all and you're left with a deep sense of sadness at the continuation of these encounters.
From the Ozarks to the Outbacks, Garner slaughters immediate conquests every single time she accepts a role. She’s more than becoming as she submerges into the skin of her characters: She’s possessing. What she does with Hanna is no exception or surprise. As she bleeds profusely from the top side of her head after taking an ugly blow from an ax, the scream and cry she lets out is not merely from the pain but the frustration that’s been building up from the beginning. As she gets up from the ground and slowly makes her way back to the bar, you just know all the bottles will be thrown to the floor to shatter any moment now.
Henwick perfectly illuminates the various confidences Hanna doesn’t possess and showcases how easy it is for someone like that however unintentionally to fall under the spell of liquor, laughter, and lingering into the wee hours of the morning. Weaving completely broke me as Benedict Cumberbatch’s rapist father in Patrick Melrose and he utilizes that same level of fowl animosity here. Every moment he’s on screen, his body language says everything he cannot when he’s too drunk to speak. The way he sits slams his hand down on the counter and stumbles out of doorways also points towards a larger threat he only has yet to make.
Yovich is a beautiful singer and I’ve not watched her other work as an actor but she’s a talent that must be protected at all costs. This woman has something. I can feel it so strongly and I pray so deeply that she’ll be in Green’s next film (Which will also star Garner as Green has said she wants to make a spiritual trilogy of different stories with similar themes). Carol’s frustration melts off her face like an ice sculpture brought out into the boiling sun. Just the satisfaction she must feel when she takes Billy’s can of beer and pours it upside down. The sound the beer makes as it exits the can (Canned beer is later stabbed from the side as customers attempt to drink it without snapping it open just to see if they can) is haunting and liberating.
It may seem like 91 minutes is too short for a film that requires such attention-dedicated focus from its audiences but I think what Green is trying to convey is that it takes no time for environments to spiral out of control. The Assistant was 87 minutes and felt like 25. Runtimes are not about time but the atmosphere of the stories being told.
Where do we go from here? How do we conquer victory in establishments like The Royal Hotel? Establishments that are so community-driven and have local customers that span several decades? Of course, people could easily just behave themselves but…..they’re just not going to. You can influence people if you’re lucky but you can’t change them. The brilliance of Green’s films comes from so clearly shadowing the origins of its problems but more so by acknowledging there are no easy solutions anywhere in sight.
The Royal Hotel, Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Royal-Hotel-Julia-Garner/dp/B0CH7KCYX4. Accessed 18 Oct. 2023.