By Adam Nayman
In addition to being one of the rare Sundance breakouts to earn its all-hands-on-deck hype, Kitty Green’s 2020 office horror movie The Assistant was a heartening example of less really being more. Its well-stocked inventory of individual and institutional microaggressions added up to a granular, lived-in portrait of film-industry exploitation and, crucially, complicity; the final shots of Julia Garner eating her lonely bodega muffin after a day spent toadying to drug-bloated sexual predators suggested that the beat, such as it is, goes on. For her new—and predictably bigger-scale—follow-up The Royal Hotel, Green’s facility for putting certain images and exchanges in bristling italics remains, but she’s moved away from The Assistant’s insinuating understatement towards something like a full-throated thesis. Which, basically, boils down to: Beware of Australian Men—especially if they are drunk, and/or named something like “Teeth.”
Disappointment is relative: certainly, there are plenty of believable, well-observed social and behavioural details in this narrative of waylaid Western backpackers slinging Fosters—and fending off all kinds of unwanted advances—in a Seventh Continent roadhouse, and some plausibly fraught psychology, too: time and again, Green makes it clear that heroines Hanna (Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick) are taking their chances in enacting boozy, spring-breakers-style hedonism on unfamiliar turf, and there are feints amidst the ominous dread at more boomerang-y cultural critique, i.e., whether being called a “sour cunt” by your alcoholic boss is really an insult or a term of endearment, and whether taking it as the former results in a kind of self-fulfilling misogynist prophecy. But no matter how carefully gradiated The Royal Hotel has been in terms of dialogue and performance (and editing and framing, all top-notch) its craft is ultimately in the service of an overdetermined cautionary tale that teases—and then, more than a bit smugly, refuses to stoop to—a set of B-movie tropes unworthy of its overall politically correct pedigree. Where its predecessor etched a pervasive—and finally helpless—sense of everyday evil, The Royal Hotel acknowledges the impulse, shared between its characters and their creator, to blow the whole rotten thing up once and for all, and in doing so comes dangerously close to confusing catharsis and cliché.