Director: David Michod
Runtime: 102 minutes
With its minimalist narrative and sparse characterization, The Rover could have easily been as emotionally and thematically barren as the dusty Outback setting. "Nothing means anything any more," intones a rough and ragged Guy Pearce. That line is either an unintentionally funny statement about The Rover's emptiness, or a careful piece of a subtlety that illustrates how the film finds meaning in a ruthless, topsy turvy world.
Writer/director David Michod's debut, Animal Kingdom, received near-unanimous praise. His sophomore effort, fresh off of a bow at Cannes, has proven more divisive, and not without reason. Animal Kingdom stayed mostly within the lines of a true crime family saga, even as it showcased some of Michod's visual tics. The Rover blends elements from multiple genres, and defies obvious categorization, despite some obvious major influences. And, while it's not the resounding success that Animal Kingdom was, The Rover still demonstrates Michod's gifts as a stylist and storyteller, even if the results are less traditionally satisfying this time around.
Set 10 years after a vaguely defined "collapse," The Rover wastes no time introducing its slim set up. Haggard wanderer Eric (Pearce) loses his car to a trio of men fleeing a shootout (ambush? robbery?), and becomes hell bent on getting it back. Eventually he realizes that his only hope is Rey (Robert Pattinson), the simple-minded brother left for dead by the three thieves.
Guy loses car and wants it back doesn't exactly leap off of the page as a compelling set up. And, in the opening sequences, The Rover doesn't seem like it will be able to do much with the title character's simple quest. Subverting expectation, what starts off as a car chase turns into a dryly funny back and forth between two vehicles. Guns are drawn, but never fired, and rather than build to a shoot out, the scene ends with both parties coming to a stop to talk things over in person (that is, until tensions boil over).
As in Animal Kingdom, violence erupts in carefully timed bursts. For all of the shots fired off in The Rover, it has no actions scenes, nor is it an action movie. The bloodshed is chilling in its efficiency, perfectly reflecting a world where survival at any cost is one's first (and only) priority. This kill-or-be-killed notion is echoed in the film's depiction of the post-collapse economy. Eric repeatedly asks a shop keeper where his car has gone, but eventually the man refuses to answer any questions unless Eric buys something (his gun remains out and ready during the whole exchange). Later on, Eric and Rey stop to watch a passing cargo train.
Marked with Chinese characters, yet guarded by American military (or paramilitary) personnel, the train cargo is a perfect encapsulation of Michod's vision of his all-too-plausible setting. Though never explicitly stated or discussed, wealth seems to have fallen into the hands of a select few. Meanwhile, everyone else has been left to fend for themselves, as military forces are put to use guarding sources of corporate profit, rather than people.
Michod, rather admirably, refrains from easy answers. In some cases, he hardly provides any clues at all. It's a careful balancing act to pull off, and it explains why some find the film empty and monotonous, and others (like yours truly) find it rich with mostly successful minimalist storytelling and subtle world-building. There's so little that's concretely known about the world at large in The Rover, and the same goes for the characters. Australia has become a sort of dystopic Wild West, attracting all sorts of folks to its unforgiving landscape.
Against the odds, the vagueness of the characters eventually pays off for Michod, especially when it comes to Pearce's character. Eric mostly alternates between stoicism and anger, yet Pearce and Michod find surprising ways to peel back the character's emotional layers. More impressively, they do so without having to spell out everything in Eric's past for it to matter. A scene near the end explains Eric's overzealous attachment to his car, yet feels earned because Pearce does more than just stare off into space the way Ryan Gosling did in Only God Forgives.
In Eric, Michod is able to create the perfect encapsulation of a wanderer who, despite his perseverance, struggles to cope with a world where foul deeds no longer carry any weight. Pearce is exceptional in the role, allowing Eric's facade to crack in just the right ways. An early highlight arrives when he confronts an eerily calm old woman (Gillian Jones), who unknowingly gets under Eric's skin, even as he holds her at gunpoint.
Pattinson, on the other hand, is less consistent. At times, the actor's twitchy movements and slack-jawed expressions are too much, even though Rey is more or less the Lennie to Eric's George (minus the actual friendship). However, Pattinson's effort with the role is commendable, and on more than a few occasions he sticks the landing quite nicely. David Cronenberg has largely used Pattinson for his blankness. Michod, however, has forced the actor to really stretch himself when it comes to emotion and physicality. Some of Pattinson's efforts may go to far, but his work here does suggest that he's capable of more than what he's previously demonstrated.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Michod and his team have done a beautiful job of creating a world that feels unique, despite the obvious influences. Working with cinematographer Natasha Braier, Michod captures the rugged beauty of the Outback with a rough-around-the-edges elegance that perfectly suits the story. Even more impressive is the work with sound, which balances natural tones along with Antony Partos' eclectic, nervy score to often haunting (if a touch overbearing) effect.
What Michod, thankfully, understands, is that stories this simple require a complex undercurrent to make them worthwhile. Had efforts to subtly fill in gaps in the world and the characters been left by the wayside, The Rover would have been a laughably pointless exercise in faux-macho posturing. Instead, Michod's second film takes the broad and simple set up, and uses it as a vehicle to explore the thorny ins and outs of its frightening world, and the equally frightening folks who inhabit it. The Rover may not surpass Animal Kingdom, and it certainly takes its time to get going, but what Michod has pulled off is still impressive. If his first two features are any indication, his future will be as bright as the future of The Rover is bleak.