Misogyny Is Hard to Escape In "The Royal Hotel"
Kitty Green builds suspense by refusing to indulge the pulp genre beats.
Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel is a rape/revenge film in which neither the sexual violence nor the retribution ever quite happen. The result is a movie which marinates in misogynist threat like many a thriller, but without the usual familiar genre touchstones. The characters are left adrift in an extremely unpleasant world, with no signposts to tell them, or the viewer, when or how the mounting trauma will detonate. It’s a disturbing and (until the unsatisfying end) an unrelenting, weirdly quiet accomplishment.
Green’s protagonists are Hannah (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), two Americans pretending to be Canadians as they backpack and drink their way across Australia. When Liv runs out of money, the two get jobs as bartenders at The Royal Hotel, a pub in a remote Outback mining town. The bar owner, Billy (Hugo Weaving) is erratically sober at best, and the clientele range from drunk and insulting to drunk and openly threatening.
Liv is happy enough to get drunk herself while flirting and more than flirting. But Hanna becomes increasingly frightened and unhappy. She’s especially worried about Dolly (Daniel Henshell), an aggressive miner who literally throws coins at her, threatens other patrons, and puts a huge dead snake in a jar with Hannah’s name on it.
In most suspense movies, you’d expect Dolly’s stalking to escalate to a crescendo of pulp violence; he should be a clear and perhaps larger than life villain. But that isn’t how this narrative goes. Instead, Hannah has to navigate dangers that never fully clarify as dangers. Would Dolly have assaulted her that one night if she hadn’t locked her door fast enough? Would the gangly goofball Matty (Toby Wallace) have raped her if he or she had been just a little drunker? Was Liv really in danger if Hannah didn’t get her to quit drinking with Dolly?
The most painful and frightening part of the film isn’t any of these could-have-been assaults, though. It’s Liv’s bland refusal to take her friend’s fear or testimony seriously. Liv is determined to have fun, and more determined than that to not go home. That means she has a major emotional investment in assuring herself and Hannah that nothing is wrong.
Henwick makes Liv a creature of determined unseriousness; she gaslights Hannah, refuses to listen, and pulls away like she wants to take flight. When Hannah finally corners her, she turns and snaps like an enraged animal. The men are the physical threat, but the movie feels so unstable, and so unsafe, because Hannah’s sole friend keeps systematically, deliberately, betraying her. Instead of functioning as a support, sisterhood is like the ax Hannah picks up which ends up bashing her in the face.
By knocking out the genre markers and turning the ensemble (including Liv), rather than any individual, into the enemy, Green creates an oppressive atmosphere of diffuse dread. Green’s careful, too, to show that the issue isn’t really one of class; there are nods here to the milieu of Deliverance or Straw Dogs, but when Hannah’s sort of boyfriend who she met on a cruise ship shows up, he quickly gets drunk and calls her gendered slurs too. The middle-class male assholes aren’t any different than the lower-class male assholes, and not much different than Liv, either.
There’s also at least a hint that Liv is running from some sort of gendered violence in the US. Patriarchy—drunk, profane, ugly, choked with lies—is everywhere. You can’t just castrate it, as in I Spit On Your Grave, or other rape/revenge narratives, because it’s not just this body or that body. It’s a system of exploitation, linked to capitalism (Hannah is continually told to smile to boost business), but not entirely reducible to it.
There’s no obvious escape here, and no obvious end. Green seems to have been stymied herself; the conclusion stumbles out of the bleak desert she’s so carefully created and into a more conventional genre conclusion, where relationships are healed and violence cleansed with violence. It’s an unfortunate misstep and keeps the movie from greatness. The Royal Hotel is still very good though. And it’s impressive success underlines again how women directors are finally getting a chance to rework and reimagine a range of genres—a process which I think we’ll eventually see as the most important development in this era of film.
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