I’ve worked in pubs from Glasgow to London where the air of chaotic revelry could turn on a skipped heartbeat towards something darker. But something about transplanting this oncoming storm’s chill into the baking Australian outback exacerbates the risk tenfold in filmmaker Kitty Green’s gut-punch follow-up to The Assistant.
Set in the Australian desert and loosely based on the hectic documentary Hotel Coolgardie, The Royal Hotel clearly traces a line of kangaroo-containing shockers from Ted Kotcheff’s seminal outback thriller Wake in Fright by way of Wolf Creek.
This latest entry in movies that the Australian tourism board probably don’t want you to see casts The Assistant lead Julia Garner (Ozark) as Hanna alongside Jessica Henwick’s (Glass Onion) Liv as backpackers who, having burned through their money partying in Sydney, reluctantly leave the harbour behind to work in a remote mining town bar. Run by The Lord of the Rings star Hugo Weaving’s less than elven serene landlord Billy and his long-suffering partner and pub cook Carol (Ursula Yovich), they’re mostly good eggs, if a little gruff. However, some of the punters (not to mention the snakes in jars behind the bar) give Hanna the creeps – even if Liv’s a lot more ‘YOLO’ about it all.
Anyone familiar with Snowtown actor Daniel Henshall will hear alarm bells ringing by dint of his menacing presence. Other folks occupying the bar stools from knock-off to closing time are less easy to read, like James Frecheville’s seemingly sweet Teeth and Babyteeth’s Toby Wallace, whose Matty goes from lewd cider jokes to possible romantic interest in no time. And will Herbert Nordrum’s fellow traveller Torsten step up when the proverbial hits the wheezing aircon, or flake to match the title of his previous film The Worst Person in the World?
It’s Wake in Fright by way of Wolf Creek
Green’s taut storytelling, claustrophobically contained within an impressive pub set, delivers a lithe film that wriggles out of the reach of easy conclusions. Leaning into the beer-sweat-inducing tension, a war of wills erupts over bottle tops, with the line between ‘colourful’ banter and malicious intent oscillating wildly, leaving Liv and Hanna in a terrifying, limbo, caught between fight or flight.
Michael Latham’s head-spinning cinematography and Jed Palmer’s similarly unnerving score – backed up by Aussie pub rock and, er, Kylie – add disconcerting layers. Garner is excellent anchoring the off-kilter tone, convincing as both possible victim and ‘done with this shit’ force to be reckoned with. Maybe the only way to beat the beast is to become it, dancing toe-to-toe until it’s time to go.
In UK cinemas Nov 3. Out in Australia Nov 23