Former documentarian Kitty Green follows up her excellent 2019 fiction debut, The Assistant, with another exploration of a young woman in a dangerous work environment trying to keep her head above water while looking out for a contemporary in the same situation. Julia Garner again stars, paired here with Jessica Henwick (who played Kate Hudson's assistant in the prior year's Glass Onion). The two play American friends vacationing in Australia who run out of money and decide to take a Work/Travel job at a seedy bar and flophouse called the Royal Hotel. Despite its regal, high-status name, it is located in a remote outback mining town populated by dudes so far removed from civilization that they have no idea how to relate to women.
Like The Assistant, the film explores the vigilant threat assessment required for someone living in the predatory situation of its protagonist. It looks as well at the added dangers that come with trying to support someone else who may be less able to take care of themselves and may not want the help. The best aspect of is the dynamic between Garner and Henwick's characters. Green keenly investigates the inconsistent dynamics and constant re-evaluations made between young female friends in ways few films have before.
But unlike The Assistant, The Royal Hotel lacks the one thing it should have in abundance—sustained tension. Individual anxiety-producing scenes contain plenty of taught suspense that quickens our heartbeat as we anticipate potentially bad outcomes. But the film's episodic nature, and possibly one of the themes it explores, acts like a reset button that robs the overall story of its slow-burn dread. Despite evidence to the contrary, Garner's character never seems in over her head. While the movie deftly explores how predominantly male spaces, where booze and one-upmanship flow freely, can turn from playful to dangerous with little to no warning, the potential peril feels set at a reasonably standard level rather than the exaggerated echelon of this specific local.
Perhaps that "it could happen anywhere" feeling is the movie's central point. But both Green and her co-writer Oscar Redding are Aussies, and they clearly intend The Royal Hotel as a throwback to prestige Ozploitation pictures, along the lines of Wake in Fright (1971) or The Cars That Ate Paris (1974). The film builds to a climax worthy of those movies but feels both illogical and unearned in this one. In fact, The Royal Hotel's ending runs counter to the tone it seems to have gone out of its way to establish up to that point.
Green's sophomore outing lacks slow-burn dread of her debut, The Assistant. Odd considering it's about two young American women trapped working at a seedy outback mining town bar. Garner and Henwick deliver strong lead performances; their dynamics are the picture's most effective aspect.