“Whatever you think is over for me was over a long time ago.”
The Rover, David Michod’s bleak, existential tale of pursuit and retribution in the Australian Outback, starts with a sustained take of a grizzled Eric (Guy Pearce) sitting in his car, brow laden with contemplation. Minutes later, as he broods further inside a makeshift roadside cantina, three thugs coming off a botched robbery make off with his wheels. The camera then lingers on Eric again as he angrily but methodically extricates their ditched truck before taking off after them.
Such idling is indicative of The Rover, a movie made as much by its pensive interludes as its action pieces. It’s an intentional choice that in less skilled hands can come off either pretentious or indulgent. But languor and rumination are the appropriate routes in a film about a crippled world that takes place, as a title card tells us, ten years after The Collapse.
Eric’s single-minded attempt to retrieve his car forms the threadbare plotline of The Rover. His reasons for wanting it back are never expressed; the car clearly means something to him more than just transportation, or the thieves’ truck would certainly suffice.
As he courses through a parched landscape of shanty outposts and bodies crucified on power poles, it’s almost impossible not to think of The Road or The Road Warrior throughout, with its stark minimalism, vast open roads, and random brutality, especially the opening car pursuit—a clear homage to the latter, down to the low-level, head-on perspectives of bumpers kissing at 90 miles an hour. Eric’s purloined vehicle is a Holden Commodore, an Australian muscle car by GM whose lines evoke a cleaned-up version of Max Rockatansky’s V8 Interceptor.
But The Rover isn’t the Road Warrior. There’s no diesel-punk/heavy-metal design, no pure genre conventions. The world is very much grounded in reality. Action scenes are shot more like chess matches to illustrate character rather than to thrill, though the resultant tension more than makes up for kinesis. When Eric wanders into a nearby house that doubles as a brothel and opium den, his back-and-forth with the proprietor named Grandma (Gillian Jones) is made more unnerving by its understated nature. His gun level at her head, he wants to know if she’s seen a car with three men in it; she wants to know his name first. For an extended beat they ask and re-ask the same question, neither answering, their volume never rising above the level of intimate conversation, and yet the tension just about knifes through the screen.
Despite the squalor and poverty of spirit that abounds, The Rover is less a post-apocalyptic movie than a pre-apocalyptic one, its existentialism more forefront, more desperate. There’s zero exposition, only intimation: American money is favored over Australian; most of the vendors and the all the overheard pop-music is Chinese; mining is coveted work that draws people in from overseas, including Americans. Even when it shifts to a road movie after Eric finds and abducts the wounded younger brother of one of the thieves whom they left for dead—Rey (an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson)—Michod eschews the temptation for easy sentimentality, opting to keep things honest and in-the-moment.
That he has a seasoned practitioner of restraint as his lead is a huge asset. Pearce’s chiseled, bearded face is a hundred-mile-long lit fuse snaking across blacktop. It’s a performance of controlled nuance and coiled fury. But Pattinson is the true surprise here, an eye-opener of a turn that’s light years beyond his butter-knife-dull work in Cosmopolis and the Twilight movies. And while he sometimes threatens to trickle into parody, Pattinson mostly holds it together, both in twitchy mannerisms and largely believable Southern-twanged American accent. Rey is a borderline simpleton, earnest and chatty, even while lugging a bullet in his side. As Eric drives him all over the Outback in search of his car, Rey can’t cage his naïve, ingratiating nature around a man who’s essentially holding him hostage. He’s less wounded by the bullet in his body than by Eric’s reiterations that his brother, Henry (Scoot McNairy), has abandoned him. One can almost see the notion coalescing in Rey’s eyes that in a world gone to hell-in-a-hand-basket, it’s the memories of love, intimacy, and of what we hold dear that we’re forced to cling vice-like to in order to maintain our humanity, even if it means killing for them.
For Eric, it’s his car and what’s in it. For Rey, it’s familial loyalty.
The erosion of the precious is ideally reflected in the cinematography. Shot by Natasha Braier on 35mm instead of digital, all the warmth has been siphoned off and stripped to dust. Only the harshness of a blinding-white sun, and the sickly-green nighttime fluorescents give this world shape. Even the blood looks rusty and lifeless.
In a movie rife with stand-offs, both figurative and literal, The Rover ends almost as it starts, with a sustained burst of tension and violence. Shots are exchanged, and a sad, inconsequential vehicle during the best of times is returned to its determined owner. When we finally learn what it is that’s driven Eric to kidnapping, theft, and murder, it’s done quietly and without fanfare. This revelation may be disappointing to those seeking a more profound or ironic reason for Eric’s single-minded pursuit of his car—and it is profound in its own small, human way—but by the time the dust has cleared, reasons no longer seem important. Like Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud, the car explains everything and nothing. And much like Citizen Kane, The Rover is an absorbing, cerebral exercise that chisels away at stifled emotional aches.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
When not scribbling twisted musings into spiral notebooks, photographing the odd puddle or junk pile, or building classy furniture, Dino Parenti earns a little scratch drawing buildings.