“The Royal Hotel,” the setting of Kitty Green’s ulcer-inducing thriller, is a sun-baked bar in a rural Australian mining town surrounded by terrain so monotone that Canadian backpackers Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) can’t keep their eyes open on the way in. The two young women arrive at their barmaid jobs with a sense palpable disorientation. They’ve quite literally woken up in Oz, and they don’t know the people, the customs, the nicknames for the local ales, or the way out.
The customers are, as you might expect, gruff and girl-starved. (The chalkboard sign heralding their first shift reads: “Fresh meat.”) Hanna and Liv are steeled for that. They’re not idiots, even if their knowledge of Australia is pretty much limited to Fosters beer and kangaroos. Still, Green, a keen and steely talent, puts them — and us — through hell.
The worst part? This setup is true. Green and her co-writer Oscar Redding (a bonafide Australian man) have based the script on Pete Gleeson’s 2016 documentary “Hotel Coolgardie,” named for this desolate stretch of land where #MeToo has yet to arrive. The doc followed the miseries of two Finnish girls, one of whom never recovered from the gig. This fictionalized adaptation tweaks the characters’ names — goodbye “Canman,” hello “Teeth” — and forgoes the original’s flatly-lit cinematic neutrality. It does keep, however, a second pair of barmaids who’ve adapted to their circumstances too much — think Christopher Walken in “The Deer Hunter.”
Green knows that audiences are expecting an outback horror flick (has this region ever produced a romantic comedy?), so she serves up every one of the genre’s conventions: bleak landscapes, ominous quiet, giant snakes, never-ending black skies and, above all, the dreadful apprehension that no one is coming to help. (The moody cinematography is by Michael Latham.) Hanna and Liv study the men to figure out who they can trust when the town’s incel frustrations explode. The pub’s owner, Billy (a fully immersed Hugo Weaving), is an obvious cad. Of the clientele, Teeth (James Frecheville) is polite but possessive. Matty (Toby Wallace) is a slippery joker. Dolly (Daniel Henshall) is a mean drunk. Even a visiting Swede (Herbert Nordrum) who made out with Hanna back in Sydney seems to put more energy into trying to impress the lads. The dating pool is primordial.
There’s a way these movies usually go: a sexual attack and then bloody, vengeful catharsis. Green uses our anticipation to her advantage. She gets us looking for danger in every scene — and we usually find it. The director is using this bar as a terrarium of a toxic dynamic that exists, well, everywhere. She’s taken us here, to this extremely specific place, to sharpen our awareness of the tiniest red flags that flap around the globe.
Henwick’s Liv, the more chillaxed of the pair, tends to wave off the small stuff. Billy only calls them the c-word because, as Liv explains, “it’s a cultural thing.” Hanna, played with watchful intensity by Garner, is more alert — in part because she’s more likely to be sober, or at least, not pass-out drunk. As in her last film with Green, “The Assistant,” an almost zoological study of what it might have been like to work for Harvey Weinstein, Garner has a gift for revealing the churn inside a character who rarely feels safe enough to say exactly what she thinks. One of the smartest moments in the movie comes when Liv tries to pump her best friend up with empty feminist platitudes — she can handle this, she’s strong — and Hanna finally snaps. “No I’m not!” she explodes. “I’m weak and I’m scared and I want to go home!”
The actors recognize that handling a room of drunks is performance. Tips hinge on knowing when to flirt and when to scowl. When all of the drunks are bigger than you (one of the male actors is a towering 6’11”, a full foot and a half taller than either female lead), the job is more like high-wire improv over a tank of sharks. Over and over, we in the audience find ourselves wanting to shout advice at the screen like we would in a regular horror movie: laugh at that joke, don’t laugh at that one and for god’s sake, stop doing shots. When we pause to examine our own reactions, we get walloped by Green’s heaviest point. Why are we micromanaging the victims but never yelling, “Leave them alone!” at the men?
Yet, Green is a storyteller with such control that we don’t leave the theater feeling patronized or hectored. She’s thought everything out, and planned it so that every scene in “The Royal Hotel” is as gripping as it is pointed. The film grabs us from the get-go, as soon as the opening sequence plunges us into the Sydney party scene where the girls are about to realize they’re in desperate need of some quick cash. Neon lights flashing, dudes pressing in on all sides, soundtrack blasting a sleazy club-kid cover of Men at Work’s “Down Under,” Hanna slithers her way to the bar to order another round. The male bartender says her card is declined. He’s not even nice about it. And we don’t think to tell him to smile.