“Everything doesn’t have to be about something.”
You don’t mess with Guy Pearce when he wants his car back.
From the director of the excellent Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom comes The Rover, a bleak, brutal and sometimes darkly funny dystopian thriller. In the wake of an unspecified future “collapse,” all economic, social and political structures are in ruins. Conversation is reduced to terse, necessary exchanges. No law protects you from harm nor could any be enforced. It is the old west anew; a wild and savage frontier.
Onto this stage steps Eric, our weary and hardened protagonist played with understated intensity by Guy Pearce. We know his name only from the credits – in the film he repeatedly avoids introducing himself. A chance meeting at a rest stop ends with three men stealing his car, and Eric doggedly gives chase. In his pursuit he comes across Rey, a dim-witted younger man played by Robert Pattinson who has been left for dead by his brother Henry (Scoot McNairy). Eric needs Rey to lead him to Henry so the two become uneasy traveling partners in what is starting to sound like a buddy road movie in the vein of Planes, Trains and Automobiles but which I swear couldn’t be more different.
Eric is not much of talker, and The Rover is not much of a talking movie. It’s a doing things movie. We learn about these characters mostly by observing their actions. Eric is steely and deliberate, assessing a situation and then acting without hesitation or remorse. He is a survivor. Anyone who isn’t doesn’t have long in this unforgiving future. Rey, by contrast, is more trusting and naïve. He feels the need to fill silence with conversation. It’s by sheer luck that he lives long enough to cross Eric’s path.
Guy Pearce is an Australian national treasure. The man is an incredibly reliable actor who does a lot in this movie without doing very much. He seems to emote a hundred different things from beneath the same scowl. He’s a perfect match for the stark tone this film establishes and commands our strict attention at every turn. Where Pearce acts a little Pattinson acts a lot, but his performance is just as good. If we haven’t yet forgiven him for Twilight, maybe now is the time to start. The character of Rey is a fairly astute study of a certain kind of young man I’m sure I have met multiple times growing up in rural mountain communities. His speech is lilting and drawled. He’s never had money. His role models are petty criminals. His swaying, swaggering gait is a learned behavior that helps him project confidence and dominance. This is a pup who needs to act like the alpha dog to keep what’s his. Why this apparently American kid is running around the Outback is anyone’s guess. It’s the kind of character that could easily be too big, too showy, and lose its authenticity; but Pattinson never crosses that line. He shows us something behind this character’s eyes, a humanity that his counterpart has deeply buried.
For all this, though, the most alluring quality of the film is its world-building. Recalling the works of Cormac McCarthy, particularly No Country for Old Men and The Road, The Rover paints the Australian Outback as a punishing expanse of sun-scorched earth stretching on for eternity in every direction. It is a veritable Purgatory, a post-apocalyptic wasteland where morality goes to die, and men with it. We are never told what the collapse was, and so throughout the movie we pick up context clues as to what has happened and exactly what state the world is in. We see a few straggling military personnel (but no police), a doctor living without currency, strong elements of Asian culture awkwardly transplanted to the desert, and a reversal on the common whore house, to name just a few of the disparate and often bizarre textural details.
Heightening the atmosphere is a spare, ever-evolving score that ranges from soft keys to dissonant metallic stings, and one of the most audacious soundtrack choices in quite some time. You’ll know the song I’m talking about when you hear it. It’s one of many absurd elements that underscore the futility and meaninglessness these characters feel. And it’s funny. I’m not sure that most people will find this movie as funny as I did but I definitely think that the director is intentionally mining his material for pitch black humor (though I was the only one laughing in my theater so maybe I’m just a maniac). Sometimes when you stare into the abyss laughing is the only reaction that makes any sense.
The Rover is adamant about not burdening its audience with exposition, but there is such a thing as being too subtle. The final shot of the film ostensibly makes sense of what happened before but without enough support it feels like it comes out of nowhere. In my mind the ending acquiesces to a familiar genre beat that does the movie no favors. The central human conflicts of the story are resolved earlier by moral and relational choices made by the characters and so the implications of that moment are a bit pulpy for my tastes. Still, this is a bold and sure-handed film worth getting lost in for a few hours.