Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Director: David Michôd
Screenplay: Joel Edgerton, David Michôd
Runtime: 103 minutes
Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field.
Plot: Set after an unexplained collapse of civilisation, The Rover follows a mysterious loner as he attempts to recover his stolen car from a gang of criminals. Circumstance pairs him up with the gang leader’s brother, who was left for dead, and the two embark on a journey of single-minded vengeance.
Review: Set in the desert and isolated townships of South Australia, The Rover is a taut and sophisticated thriller that entertains as much as it surprises. Taking a tired, post apocalyptic conceit and crossing it with the clichéd figure of a lone gunman, the film finds new corners and nuances to explore despite remaining relentlessly minimal in its script, staging, and characterisations. David Michôd performs that sublime magician’s trick of turning these limitations into the greatest virtue of the film; turning the twists of the tale into genuine, earned surprises. There are no missteps in this film, leaving the impression of a film that was well conceived and brilliantly executed.
Chief amongst those surprises are the performances of leads Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson. I still hadn’t forgiven Pearce for his appearance in the saccharine and shitty 33 Postcards; where his tightly controlled intensity actively seemed absurd in an already teetering film. In The Rover this intensity is put to better use, and is pitch perfect for a character who radiates a hard, angry determination from every frame. The central mystery of The Rover is just why, sunk in a collapsed and threadbare world, this man wants his car back in the first place (through a believable, and rapid, set of circumstances the thieves leave behind their own much superior ute – allowing Pearce to catch up with them). Pearce’s performance is fundamental in selling this mystery, and largely putting it to the side – paying dividends later in the film. One character remarks ‘what a thing to get worked up about in this day and age … can you tell me [why]?’ But at a certain point one stops questioning his determination; getting what’s his becomes a matter of principle in a world of none. Pearce delivers an existential punch with lines as spare as ‘I want my fuckin’ car back.’ This is no hammy Mel Gibson in Ransom; this guy is serious.
But the revelation of the film is an unrecognisable Robert Pattinson as Rey, the brother left for dead after an unspecified raid goes wrong. Michôd uses the well worn technique of creating a gentler, more innocent character to contrast the barbaric harshness of the surrounding society and characters. But moving it beyond a cliché is the performance of Pattinson, and the details with which Michôd imbues the character. Rey starts as an innocent who refuses to believe his brother has left him to die; Pearce’s character chides him, remarking that ‘just cause you and him came out of the same woman’s hole’ doesn’t mean they have any special connection in this every-man-for-himself world. Before he even appears on the screen, Rey is sold as a fuck-up who won’t last, and Pearce tells him if ‘you don’t learn to fight your death’s gonna come real soon.’ Portrayed as slow to learn, Pattinson sells the necessary transformation of his character with devastating effect. Pattinson’s dynamic character compliments Pearce’s single-minded determination, the Dionysian other to Pearce’s staunch Apollonian will that drives the tightening narrative.
The film's score is similarly outstanding. Antony Partos' compositions drive the action forward, and compliment each scene without overwhelming the other elements. The tension is built so skilfully in The Rover that it is hard to single out any element from another; but the soundtrack stands out as a key contributor.
It is tempting to compare The Rover to Cormac McCarthy’s much lauded The Road; and certainly there are similarities that the genre brings, as well as sharing McCarthy’s spare visceral realism. But whereas The Road is firmly post-apocalyptic, The Rover frequently feels more like a lawless western with ruminations on the consequences of that lawlessness. What encounters there are with the local sheriffs feel more like what Giorgio describes as the ‘state of exception,’ where the power and brutal consequences of the law are in force but the rules that one must follow have no content. A long, beautiful shot of a passing train full of resources and marked with a corporate sign of some sort cryptically indicates that some form of larger activity continues, under a new form – but it is one that cares little for the lives of the film’s characters. After the collapse, individual beings continue to contingently survive, but it is hinted that the powerful supra-human forces that potentially caused the collapse remain just as strong and unfettered above them. The genius of Michôd’s pared-back narrative is that it leaves this exposition and speculation to the viewer; it is firmly focused on the cause and effect of its characters’ existence on the fringe.
One last comparison to The Road deserves mention; as it becomes the hidden secret of the film. Where The Road’s protagonist is fundamentally a good man trying to survive, and protect the innocent life of his son, there is no indication that the same could be said of The Rover’s lead. He demonstrates early and quickly that he is a man of no moral pause, intent on his mission, and only tolerates Rey’s presence because it gets him closer to his goal. This is another joy of the film; and, like everything else, Pearce’s characterisation embodies it. With almost no setup, we know so little of the character and circumstances of the individuals we meet within the film; what little Michôd chooses to reveal is telling.
The Rover asks what drives a man, when everything is on fire. Survival, principle, something else? This is the question thatThe Rover asks; and one to which the film provides a satisfying but ambiguous answer. It is well worth finding out.
Rating: Four stars.