The Things We Did Last Summer
Australian director Kitty Green’s taut, unrelenting drama follows Hanna (Julia Garner) and Liv (Jessica Henwick), adventurous Canadian college-age young women on a work-vacation. The two find themselves working as barmaids (and living alone upstairs) in an isolated roadhouse in Australia’s remote outback, serving the bar’s clientele of brawny, over-sexed, testosterone-driven, violence-prone miners, while longing for a relaxing swim and a peek at some kangaroos. With few exceptions, the mise en scène is appropriately claustrophobic—the one-room bar, filled with aggressive, intimidating men; the cramped, confined, and vulnerable living quarters—focusing the women’s (and the viewers’) attention on the constant threat of sexual assault that permeates the film.
“The Royal Hotel” is a mash-up of genres, with echoes of the remote western (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” ), the gothic motel (“The Shining”  and “Bad Times at the El Royale” [2020, set on the California/Nevada border]), the invaded-space story (“Straw Dogs” ), the bar/rape film (Jodie Foster in “The Accused” ), and the female revenge epic (“Carrie”  and “I Spit on Your Grave” ), with a touch of horror-cliché—the sound, then shadow of a man’s feet outside the bedroom door. A throwback to the 1970s. You get the idea.
The film has two aspects that make it more than a grim and predictable horror story. One is that Hanna and Liv differ in how they approach the problem they face, even in how they approach life, and it’s not clear which one has the right answer, or if there is one. With the exception of the first, discotheque scene in Sydney (which sets the stage for a much later one), and another in which she yields to the charms of Matty, Hanna is from the beginning reluctant, cautious, distrusting, anxious, fearful, and ultimately, outraged—and primed for self-defense, maybe even revenge. She’s been warned by the woman in Sydney who offered the roadhouse assignment that “you have to handle male attention,” and Hanna does so with a combination of passive-aggressive resistance and confrontation. Don’t f*** with me.
Liv is the “good-old girl”/party girl equivalent of the “good-old boys” who crowd the bar. She flirts, drinks with, and befriends the patrons, and playfully presents herself as a sexual young woman, confident, it seems, that nothing untoward will happen to her, or Hanna. When things start to go downhill, it’s Hanna’s fault for failing to understand not only men but the male bar culture. “You’re the embarrassment,” Liv tells Hanna.
There’s the conundrum: is there a position, a stance, a way of behaving—something short of flaunting one’s body on the bar and having second-floor sex—that will at once satisfy the men and allow the young women a reasonable level of agency and personal autonomy? Beyond that, is it the duty of the women—who are, clearly, potential victims—to find that elusive compromise? And further still, will their failure to do so make them in any way responsible for what happens? It’s worth noting that while the film presents itself primarily as a dyad of predator men and victimized women, the story includes several women—Liv, an older woman in the Mae West mold, and two young Brits who precede Hanna and Liv as barmaids—who venture into alcohol and promiscuity in different ways and depths.
The second intriguing aspect of “The Royal Hotel” is its inquiry into personality and the way in which that plays into the story. Hanna and Liz, though Liv is less aware, are in trouble, and their task—and ours, as voyeurs—is to figure out who, if anyone, can, and will, help them. It’s not easy, but there are plenty of candidates. There’s Billy (Hugo Weaving), the bar owner. He’s tall and authoritative (after all, the miners want the bar open, and access to it), and, when sober, he can keep order. But he is also a fall-down drunk, and in that state he’s ineffectual, at times unconscious. Carol (Ursula Yovich), his aboriginal partner—and cook and hotel and Billy manager—exudes physicality and gravitas, and she’s willing to dispense minimal advice to the young women. But the script by Green and Oscar Redding (writer of TV’s “Cop Hard”), in an obvious effort to render the two Canadians even more helpless, at a crucial moment removes Billy and Carol from the scene. They’ll have to find someone else.
The possible allies encompass a variety of flawed, though perhaps redeemable, male creatures. There’s “nice guy” Matty (Toby Wallace), whose sing-along to Kylie Minogue’s “The Loco-Motion” brings a smile even to Hanna’s wary face, and who finds the women a swimming hole and a tracking-shot kangaroo. Dolly (Daniel Henshall) is the worst of the bunch, lascivious, determined, and macabre. Maybe “Teeth” (James Frecheville)—bar-polite in asking Liv for a “date,” and possessed of a protective impulse—will come to the rescue. Hanna imagines the Norwegian Torsten (Herbert Nordrum, lover-boy protagonist of “The Worst Person in the World,” 2021)—the guy she met in the discotheque—as a possible ally, and, at Hanna’s urging, he arrives to spirit her and Liv to safety. But he instantly bonds with Matty in a male way, and his use of the “c” word puts Hanna off, understandably. Who do you trust? Hanna’s dilemma. A woman’s dilemma.
People are hard to read, and successfully negotiating the bar is a tall order for the callow undergrads. Their inchoate ways of understanding the people around them, and of dealing with an adventure gone wrong, are the heart of the film, presented in special depth and range by Garner and to a lesser degree by Henwick, whose role is less demanding. Garner, a 3-times Emmy winner for her role in the TV series “Ozark,” has an extraordinary way of modulating her feelings of wariness and fondness. The men who can be trusted (or not trusted) are complexly rendered, too, especially Matty, whose essence remains unknowable—until it isn’t.
The setting is so remote and the characters in the bar at times so outlandish that the story seems implausible, except it is based on events that shocked the country, presented in the documentary “Hotel Coolgardie” (2016). Green spends little time on backstories, not the co-eds’ nor Billy and Carol’s, though there are hints of Liv’s disturbing life “back home” and of Billy having squandered the once-thriving enterprise he inherited from his father. A call-out to the discrimination against aboriginals seems merely to underscore the Canadians’ lack of understanding of the culture in which they find themselves.
“The Royal Hotel” is a great package, assembled by director Green with precision and, with a few exceptions, subtlety, balancing the narrative’s frightening momentum with complex characters and even, now and then, humor (“sunshine and boxed wine!”). Green’s first feature film, “The Assistant” (2019), also starred Garner, and also was about the oppression of women in a contained environment—in that case, the office. It was a very good film. This one’s better.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Kitty Green
Starring: Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Hugo Weaving, Ursula Yovich, Toby Wallace, Daniel Henshall, James Frecheville
Runtime: 91 minutes
Other Awards: 2 wins and 2 nominations to date
Lead image: Hanna (Julia Garner), left, and Liv (Jessica Henwick), find their “work-study” assignment even more remote than they could have imagined.