“The Royal Hotel” is a horror movie but don’t expect any jump-cuts, scary masks or serial killers. It’s more like the horror that dawns on a frog when it realizes it is being boiled alive.
Filmmaker Kitty Green tells a captivating tale of two young American female backpackers who find themselves tending bar for a few weeks in a very remote part of Australia.
The bar is a dump ironically called “The Royal Hotel” and the clientele are rough, hard-drinking miners unfamiliar with the etiquette of Miss Manners or even just respectful interaction.
Our two heroines — Julia Garner from “Ozark” and Jessica Henwick from “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” — really should not be in this situation. They are the recipients of dirty jokes, drunken behavior, offensive nicknames and constant propositions. One client pays for his beer by passive-aggressively tossing coins at them.
“Wouldn’t hurt you to smile a bit?” they are asked.
Green, who directs with a screenplay she wrote with Oscar Redding, explores how women respond to a male-centered environment and how it can test their own friendship. The constant threat of violence hangs over this tale very uncomfortably, its wingman always being alcohol. Would-be heroes come and then show their true nature, slinking off.
It is a subtle movie, with the growing accretion of indignities building slowly until one of the women blurts out: “I’m scared. I’m scared of this place. I’m scared of everyone and everything in this place.”
And yet, they stay.
The remoteness of the bar — a bus is always several days away — helps explain some of the stasis, but the two women have the very human tendency to settle: They make excuses, they blame themselves, they point to cultural misunderstandings and another day begins.
Hugo Weaving plays the bar owner, the arbiter of what is correct (mis)behavior. But the moral center is played by Ursula Yovich, who speaks truth to power and when she leaves, allows chaos to fully enter.
“The Royal Hotel” has a pessimistic — OK, accurate — view of gender relations. The two sides simply don’t understand each other — “I can’t hear you,” says one of the women early on to a would-be suitor — and attempts at conversation are so often drowned out by noise. It asks how you can rationalize ending up mopping up puke in a dive bar in rural Down Under.
The movie perfectly starts with a dark remix of Men at Work’s “Down Under.” Remember the lyrics: “Buying bread from a man in Brussels/He was 6-foot-4 and full of muscle/I said, ‘Do you speak my language?’ He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”
“The Royal Hotel” shares a vibe with Alex Garland’s sophisticated horror film “Men” — an arty indictment of toxic masculinity that often felt like a lecture. But Green’s film doesn’t feel like that. The final scene will make you cheer, even if the ultimate message is murky.
“The Royal Hotel,” a Neon release, is rated R for “language throughout, sexual content and nudity.” Running time: 91 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits