Although “The Royal Hotel” is marketed as a thriller, it contains all the ingredients of horror. Two young Canadian women, Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), are stranded in a remote Australian mining town six hours away from help, without cell service or a car. They ran out of money backpacking and now must work at a dubious local bar that caters to the all-male population of miners. They are living every female traveler’s worst nightmare.
Hanna’s goal is clear: to get out before something bad happens. She faces the constant, looming threat of sexual violence. Every man introduced in the film represents a different misogynistic archetype, ranging from the overt (psychotic Dolly) to the insidious (nice guy Matty and white knight Teeth). In a telling interaction, Teeth, a rugged but comparably sensitive miner, defends Liv from Dolly, attacking the other man before he abducts her. Teeth appears chivalrous, but his true motivations surface when he screams to Dolly, “She’s mine!” Teeth never worried about Liv’s safety, only that he claimed her.
Director Kitty Green perfectly captures the all-consuming dread of simply existing as a woman in an isolating, male-dominated environment — an escalation of the workplace abuse she tackled in her 2019 film “The Assistant.”
However, despite the numerous villains Hanna counts among her customers, the true obstacle to her escape is none other than her best friend and travel partner, Liv.
At first, Liv seems like a good friend. She remains upbeat in the face of their unfortunate situation and encourages Hanna to make the most of their time abroad together. When they discover the hotel’s pool is empty, Liv lightens up a disappointing moment by setting up recliners and telling Hanna that they can still sunbathe.
Not long into their bartending tenure, however, Liv reveals her true nature. After their first night on the job, a baptism by fire into their new reality, Liv begs Hanna not to quit and reassures her that it was an unusually rowdy night. Hanna remains skeptical and her suspicions about their situation prove correct. Over the next few nights, Hanna endures a nonstop slew of degrading insults and aggressive come-ons, on top of the normal indignities of working at a bar. Liv remains oblivious to the danger the men pose and even appreciates their attention, drinking and flirting with them. After last call one night, Hanna’s world takes an even darker turn. Dolly, the bar’s most menacing patron, prowls after her and she must barricade her bedroom door to protect herself — and all the while Liv sleeps in bed behind her, drunk and blissfully unaware.
Liv’s actions are far more alarming than those of the men because she is Hanna’s only tether to the Royal Hotel. If not for Liv’s blindness to their immediate danger, Hanna could have fled much sooner. Liv is the worst sort of friend: flaky, dismissive, and recklessly thrill-seeking.
Liv’s sudden redemption at the end of the film therefore felt jarring. Although I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the experience of watching the first hour of “The Royal Hotel,” I absorbed the realism of Hanna’s plight with abject terror and gripped the Amherst Cinema armrests with white-knuckled tension. In contrast, the film’s conclusion felt abrupt and overly optimistic.
“The Royal Hotel” reaches its climax on Liv’s birthday, when she drinks herself to incapacitation and Dolly lures her to his car. Hanna, faithful as ever, chases after them and realizes she must do everything in her power to get Liv out of the car. After Hanna slashes Dolly’s tires with an ax, I found myself hungering for a revenge sequence à la “Thelma and Louise” or a Quentin Tarantino film. Why stop at his tires, I thought. But Green pivots the film here: She shrinks its scope from Hanna’s battle royale with the men to Hanna’s friendship with Liv.
After Hanna saves her, Liv realizes her friend was right all along. She joins Hanna in setting the bar ablaze (literally) and the two pals walk away in slow motion from the burning wreckage behind them, battered but not defeated. The conflict between them resolves far too neatly considering Liv’s betrayal of Hanna. Liv ignored and even ridiculed her best friend’s concerns, while the men in the film, despite their undeniably worse intentions, held no preexisting obligations to Hanna. I struggled to believe that Liv would abandon her delusions and Hanna would forgive her all in the span of a few minutes.
Nonetheless, the film’s unsatisfying conclusion does not detract from its anxiety-ridden account of a girls trip gone wrong. Green masterfully weaves impending violence into every scene without ever showing gratuitous sexual assault onscreen. She intensifies Hanna’s dire position by eliminating her one ally, portraying Liv as unreliable and unbelieving. “The Royal Hotel” is the ultimate cure for wanderlust. After watching the film, I have no desire to do anything but stay curled up and safe at home.