Australian filmmaker Kitty Green's narrative debut, "The Assistant," starring Julia Garner, made a splash in a post-Harvey Weinstein film landscape.
Her latest film, also starring Garner, takes on another industry known for its sexist hazards — the service industry — and she gives the material an Ozploitation twist. "The Royal Hotel" follows two girls, backpacking through Australia, as they take on a work and travel gig bartending at a scuzzy dive in the Outback to make some extra cash. Garner stars as the reserved Hanna; Jessica Henwick is her far more daring friend Liv, who eagerly agrees to the job without even consulting Hanna.
Green excels at configuring cinematic space to draw out the inherent peril of the setting, capturing the hyper-vigilant perspective of our heroine, Hanna, whose wariness is both founded in the very real threats that surround her, and in her past traumas, to which there are only vague allusions. What Green does so well is show us how Hanna's guarded nature both empowers and endangers her, as well as presenting a variety of different options for women to navigate a space such as the Royal Hotel, the only bar in a desolate mining town filled with roughneck working men.
First, there's the women that Hanna and Liv replace behind the bar, a pair of drunken British party girls who send off their last night with a beer-soaked bar top dance and late-night romp with the regulars. There's the crude barfly Glenda (Barbara Lowing), perhaps a future premonition for the Brits. There's Carol (Ursula Yovich), the Aboriginal woman who runs the bar with her partner Billy (Hugo Weaving), a tough, resilient gal who rules the kitchen with an iron fist, but still has to put up with the darkest depths of Billy's alcoholic behavior.
Then there's the difference between carefree Liv and the anxious Hanna. Liv gaslights and denies Hanna's qualms with the place; Hanna tells her again and again she wants to leave, but Liv lightly steamrolls her complaints and finds her fun flirting with the guys at the bar.
Green keeps us locked into Hanna's point of view, constructing conflict and danger out of glances and eye lines. The indignities the girls face range from the terrifying to the absurd — Billy exhorting them to smile more, a man asking, "Where's my rum and Coke?" during a moment that explodes into real violence — but Green knows that it's all these moments, all these players, and all these layers of compounded sexism and gendered notions of service labor that add up to creating this noxious social microcosm, one that she argues is beyond saving.
"The Royal Hotel" flirts with genre play but it never really delves into a true horror or thriller, instead simply borrowing the aesthetics and tropes for the larger social message that Green wants to impart. The ending proves a bit too facile, but there's no denying that the combination of Garner and Green is a potent force, and "The Royal Hotel" is another stinging rebuke to the kinds of workplace misogyny we've all too easily normalized.
'The Royal Hotel'
3.5 stars out of 4
Rated: R for language throughout and sexual content/nudity.
Where: In theaters, Friday.