His hair caked with blood and dirt, face covered with a spiky, unkempt beard and head circled with buzzing horseflies, Guy Pearce’s character in The Rover looks almost identical to his Western gunslinger in John Hillcoat’s 2005 film The Proposition. Sub gang leader Charlie Burns’ cowboy hat and horse for dusty cargo shorts and an even dustier late model sedan, and you get Eric (Pearce). Eric is the archetypal, desert-dwelling, man-of-few-words of Western lore. (He is even, rather cheekily, a Man With No Name, except in the film’s credits). When Eric wakes up after being knocked unconscious amidst the outback sagebrush, bloody and dirty, he is greeted only by a lone vulture, waiting patiently for the flies to dissipate and his breath to slow to a cease. But this is not Hillcoat’s 1880s Australia, this is David Michod’s near-future, post-apocalyptic Australia, an unspecified “ten years after the collapse.”
The collapse, it appears, was chiefly economic in nature. The road is scattered with small shacks and outposts that function as rudimentary waylay stations for wanderers like Eric: they’re bars, karaokes, convenience stores, whorehouses, flophouses, artilleries, hospices. Everyone is selling something–as long as you’ve got U.S. currency. Property and the idea of ownership in a society where everything and everyone is for sale is one of the reasons Eric is so incensed when a trio of criminals steal his late-model sedan. The gangsters, led by an American named Henry (Scoot McNairy), cannot understand why Eric pursues them so doggedly over something as interchangeable as a vehicle (indeed, Eric trails them in the SUV the gangsters left behind). More than 10 minutes into the movie, Pearce utters his first line of dialogue: “I want my car back.” After Henry & co. leave him for the vultures, several more minutes pass before Eric speaks again, this time to one of the haunted-looking denizens of a roadside outpost: “I need a gun.”
Eric is a man of basic necessities, and no pleasures. Pearce scowls so intensely throughout the first third of the movie, you can practically hear his teeth grinding on the soundtrack. When plied for more effusive conversation by Grandma (Gillian Jones), the supremely creepy den mother of a traveling circus that now peddles opium and pubescent boys, Eric appears on the verge of tears. He does not want to talk. He just wants to know where Henry and his gang went. He just wants his car back.
Having obtained a gun, Eric runs across Rey (Robert Pattinson), a dirty young man with a bullet wound in the gut. Has he seen three men in a late-model sedan? Yes he has. He knows those men. Henry is Rey’s older brother, who left him for dead after a robbery gone wrong. Rey can take Eric to where the gang is hiding out. In exchange, Eric can take Rey to a roadside doctor and drive him several hundred miles to his brother. An uneasy truce is made, and a road trip begins.
Rey has the mien and bearing of a beaten-down dog. He’s a twitchy half-wit whose stutter and thick, Bubba Gump-style Southern accent is a wild counterbalance to Eric’s stone-cold silence. Michod’s and co-writer Joel Edgerton clearly delight is setting up the odd-couple dynamic between the mysterious stranger and the talkative dummy. They give Pattinson plenty of Lennie Small-esque “retard wisdom” like when Rey’s rambling story about his childhood is met by Eric’s dismissive confusion. Rey drawls, “Not everything has to be about something.”
That about sums it up for The Rover, a film where some things happen, but not for any discernible reason, and not to anyone we particularly care about. Michod’s film is full of oblique silences punctuated by exchanges between Eric and Rey, like above, that are quite frankly, laughable. (Pattinson’s performance frequently recalls Fredo Corleone’s tragicomic outburst, “I’m smart! Not like everybody says…like dumb!”)
The economic collapse is an intriguing pretense that never feels fully integrated into the story. There is an interesting story on the margins of the film about the immigrants–Cambodian, Chinese, a New Zealander by way of Zimbabwe–who came to the Australian outback for work only to find desolation and martial law, but these mostly silent characters barely register as window dressing. When a young Aboriginal girl is accidentally gunned down in a firefight between Rey and the military, it’s like a big, bright spotlight on Michod’s political critique. Still, the girl functions simply as a sacrificial lamb added to the guilt of the already embittered and disillusioned white protagonists.
Even without a freshman year intro to geopolitics lesson, The Rover is amply trying on the viewer. Between Pearce’s “want”/”need” single-minded dialogue and Pattinson’s incessant facial tics (oh, the furrowed eyebrows! the pursed lips!), there is a desperate paucity of good acting for most of the film’s runtime. (The always reliable McNairy has a tragically small role.) Unlike Michod’s debut Animal Kingdom, a thin script of gangster genre cliches that was saved from mediocrity by terrific performances from the entire cast, neither Guy Pearce (who is almost always the best thing in any movie) and Pattinson (who is at least trying) bring any depth to a woefully underwritten film.
The South Australian locations, which have their own kind of godforsaken beauty, at least provide a few stunning landscapes, skillfully lensed by DP Natasha Braier. Antony Partos’ score, which vacillates between jangly, spaghetti Western sounds and dissonant, piercing tones, may be the best aspect of the entire film–even if the soundscape is culled from other Westerns and post-apocalyptic movies. Overt familiarity is The Rover‘s biggest fault–that is, until you reach the film’s final stinger, in which we finally learn why Eric wanted his car back so badly. The reveal is eye-rollingly bad, a moment of affected profundity Michod’s long, winding road trip never earns.
By Dan Schindel
I think we need to declare a moratorium on post-apocalyptic stories. Or at least, maybe artists should have to get special permission to make them, via a rigorous pitch process through which they demonstrate that they have something new to bring to the table. As it is, it seems that this genre exists to give writers an easy way to fill their stories with violence without having to pay much thought to consequences. They can make nasty adventures on a shoestring budget. But the dividends are paying less and less now, especially since YA fiction has mightily muscled in on the genre to the point of over-saturation. The Rover has nothing new to offer, and playing in the post-apocalyptic setting actually seems to have deadened some of Australian director David Michôd’s considerable talent.
Ten years after some vague societal collapse (imaginatively referred to as “the collapse”), a man played by Guy Pearce (his name is apparently Eric, but I don’t remember hearing it said during the film) roams the Outback in his car, his sole remaining possession. When a trio of thieves led by Scoot McNairy jacks it, he sets out after them. He’s aided by Rey (Robert Pattinson), the simple-minded younger brother of McNairy’s character whom the gang left behind during their latest heist. The pair travel the wilderness, encountering the requisite post-apocalyptic random savagery along the way.
I’m not sure if any extra art direction was needed to make rural Australia look like it’s suffered the aftermath of the death of civilization. They might have needed to add more dust. But this is a low-budget production, and they worked with what they had. The movie is strongly reminiscent of the first Mad Max, the one that people often forget is vastly different in tone from its sequels. This world plays out a lot like a western, the loss of the law legitimizing an environment of isolated settlements and roving outlaws in a not-too-distant-future setting. The plot is very basic as well, all about the single-minded pursuit of property. And the relationship between Eric and Rey reminds one more than a little of that between the father and son in The Road, albeit with antagonism in the place of pure love. Rey’s not-quite-innocence (he indulges in plenty of cold-blooded murder) is the source of both conflict and some brief flickers of humor in the otherwise somber piece.
The Road. Mad Max. Any other rusty dystopia you can think of. The Rover hearkens to all of them without doing much that will make any future films in this genre make the viewer think of it. Its violence feels like it’s done to fulfill an obligation more than anything else. There are numerous moments where the most logic I could detect for why someone killed someone else was, “That’s the world this is, so there.” At one point, Pearce says that one should carry every killing he does with him, which doesn’t jibe at all with the attitude he displays at any other time in the story.
Pearce is merely all right. He just has to gruff his way through, and gruff he does. Pattinson is… I’m not sure what to make of Pattinson. His sub-Lenny-from-Of-Mice-and-Men routine is such that I’m not sure whether to laugh in derision, feel vaguely offended, or do both. It certainly isn’t good. The Rover at least carries on Michôd’s visual talents, though it kind of runs out of engaging imagery around halfway through. This is a significant step down from Animal Kingdom, though I’m sure Michôd will be just fine going forward.