If you’re a character in an unnerving Australian film, there are a few things you don’t want to show up under any circumstances. These include, but are not limited to:
- Kangaroos. Whether it’s the solo roadkill of Talk to Me, the barrel of no laughs in Snowtown, or the ‘Sorry Skippy’ mash-up of Wolf Creek 2, their presence rarely augurs well. For them or anyone else.
- Outback pubs. Serving two-up and no good luck to out-of-towners since Ted Kotcheff’s stone-cold 1971 classic Wake in Fright.
- Snakes. Far scarier in a jar in a pub than on a plane (read on for more, but see also beaches and 1978 nature bites back shocker Long Weekend).
- Daniel Henshaw. Honestly, since Snowtown, just run. Run fast. Run far.
The Assistant director Kitty Green’s twist-the-knife nerve-eviscerating sophomore dramatic feature The Royal Hotel, loosely inspired by Pete Gleeson’s eye-and-pint-popping doco Hotel Coolgardie, serves all this and more. Opening both the inaugural SXSW Sydney and the 20th anniversary Adelaide Film Festival (where this reviewer caught it) after berthing at Telluride, this visceral, wrong-footing thriller begins in the belly of the beast. Not Dark Age’s giant saltwater croc, but one of those skeevy club boats that circles Sydney Harbour packed full of grotesquely boozy tourists.
It’s here we first meet American backpackers feigning Canadian Hanna (so good as in Green’s #metoo-channeling debut feature) and Liv (Jessica Henwick, Glass Onion). When an unimpressed lifeguard costume-wearing barman snatches back their beers after Liv’s credit card is declined, it catapults them on an ill-fated mission to the back of beyond pub of the title via train, bus and a lift in a beat-up van.
Lorded over by Hugo Weaving’s boisterously wagon falling off publican Billy, with Ursula Yovich’s exasperated Carol trying to keep him on the straight and narrow, it’s the sort of joint where filthy in more ways than one miners are always one pint away from mayhem. That the shelves are stacked with vats of pickled snakes, and Henshall’s menacingly misnomer-ed Dolly props up the bar with a scowl already gets us to three ‘hell nos’ before we’ve begun.
By the time the seemingly much sweeter though still salty-tongued Matty (Tobyby Wallace of the Romper Stomper sequel series) takes the girls to a waterhole for a dip, a bounding roo skips us into ticking off all four red flags.
Grin and bear it
Astounded by the prolific deployment of the C-Bomb, Hannah wants to high tail it back to Sydney immediately, but Liv assures her of Australia’s culturally diverse understanding of the word and reassures her that the survival of the previous (extremely drunken) English bargirls means they can grin and bear it for much-needed holiday cash.
But much like Wake in Fright, no one in the pub seems quite right, and they may well be taking their lives in their hands alongside the colour-coded beer bottle dispensing system.
Animal Kingdom actor James Frecheville’s buzz cut and scarred Teeth looks like his bark would bite, but he’s actually a relatively steadying hand in this stool-smashing maelstrom. It’s just he can’t quite tread the line regarding his increasingly territorial ‘protection’ of Liv, whether she consents or not.
Even as Hanna eases into bar life and is briefly sweet on Matty, she keeps the locals at arm’s length and one eye on the door, especially after Dolly, increasingly disturbed in his demands that she smile, sneaks upstairs one unsettling night. In classic horror movie panic, we wind up eyeing off a hefty chest of drawers Hanna really should be barricading that door with.
Green, also co-writing alongside Van Diemen’s Land scribe Oscar Redding, keeps a tight hand on our hearts and throats as the sinister undertones spiral like the coils of the snake that invades their living quarters above the pub, but in a smartly unbalancing move, she ensures that nothing quite plays out as you might expect as the locals get rowdier and rowdier.
The tightly wound screenplay and central performances take care not to sneer too much in one direction, with Hanna and Liv more than capable of slightly arsey behaviour on occasion, but our sympathies continually turn to them as the toxic masculinity trap they appear to be caught in inexorably tightens around them, and one has to stand up for the other. But just who is gonna best who is a rapidly shifting hullabaloo.
Props to Green’s regular collaborator and Strange Colours cinematographer Michael Latham, whose woozily claustrophobic angles tip us drunkenly from bar top to sticky carpet and back and the pallid hangover hue of the overall lighting design that helps amp up a sharp 90-minute all-in session that will leave you breathless. As will the scuzzy pub rock of the soundtrack, though It’s probably the unlikely trills of Kylie’s doo-wop cover Pillow that sink in deepest.
‘Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart, caused by youuuuuuuuuu …
If we could start anew, I wouldn’t hesitate.’
But it’s too late. You didn’t run when you ticked off that checklist. This pub’s about to blow up and it’ll take us, the audience, with it in a dead-set instant Australian wrong’un classic.
The Royal Hotel screened as part of the Adelaide Film Festival (18–29 October). It goes on general release in Australia 23 November.