Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Pete Gleeson.
Coolgardie is a small mining town situated some 500kms east of Perth. It is a remote, insular and isolated town where little ever happens. The social hub of the town is the local pub, the Denver City Hotel. Every season a couple of new barmaids, usually backpackers from Europe, arrive for a three-month stint to earn some money, pouring beers.
This fly on the wall verite documentary from first time feature film maker Pete Gleeson follows the latest two arrivals – Finnish backpackers Lina and Steph. Having had their life savings stolen whilst in Bali, the two find work through a local employment agency that sends them to Coolgardie for a three-month stint. Great excitement and anticipation greets them as the hotel’s tough as nails proprietor Coffey has heavily promoted their arrival.
The new girls are considered “fresh meat” by the jaded veteran locals who patronise the hotel. But the girls have difficulty adjusting to life in this small town, and they have trouble understanding the local customs and the vernacular. Indeed, much of the film uses subtitles so we, the audience, can understand the dialogue. The atmosphere is charged with sexual tension as the girls have to fend off the amorous attention from some lonely men. It is a real baptism of fire for the girls, and they wilt under the pressure. The girls came looking for an adventure, what they found will shape their lives, and possibly stay with them forever.
Even more demanding is the attitude of the owner Pete Coffey, who sits across from the bar barking criticism and abrasive insults, constantly belittling them. His method of training the new arrivals leaves a lot to be desired. And when Lina falls sick it adds tension and some drama to the material.
We also get to meet a few of the locals; the most colourful and interesting character is John, aka “the Canman”, an aging paternal gent who takes a shine to the new girls and seems protective of them. His backstory adds some emotional heft to the film. Unfortunately, he passed away shortly after filming was completed, and the film is dedicated to him.
This candid, warts-and-all look documentary is an impressive debut from Gleeson, who shot some 80 hours of footage. Gleeson first came across this hotel fifteen years ago while he was working in the remote region, and thought that it would make an interesting subject for a film. Gleeson not only shot the film, but he has edited down the footage to the 83-odd minutes we see on screen. Given the nature of the film we are never quite sure where it is heading, but Gleeson ensures that there is a strong narrative arc to the material that flows smoothly and fluidly.
This is a compelling but confronting and disturbing look at Australia’s raucous bogan, misogynistic, blokey and boozy masculine culture, and it makes for quite harrowing viewing. The seedy picture Hotel Coolgardie paints of outback Australia is not very flattering. In fact, while watching the film I couldn’t help but think of Wake In Fright, Ted Kotcheff’s bleak and powerful 1971 film adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s seminal novel. Hotel Coolgardie is equally as scary and unsettling, and more importantly, it is real.