“The Rover” begins with the enigmatic text “10
years after the collapse,” a global economic meltdown that has made
electrical power and gasoline scarce, and
caused the Australian outback to seem more desolate than ever. We witness that deserted
brown landscape through the eyes of Eric, played with ferocious restraint by Guy
Pearce, as he sits behind the wheel of his car. His face is weather-beaten, and
to say he is laconic is an understatement. When the car is stolen by thieves escaping
a shootout, he purposefully hunts them down. Throughout David Michod’s arresting and tense
film — part thriller, part warning of dystopia — he strides the dust like a
character from an old Western. Despite the glaring sun, Michod creates a shadowy
world that forces us to sift through the moral possibilities: is Eric hero, villain,
vigilante or all three?
The car is taken when Eric goes into what passes for
civilization, a bar that is no more than a cinderblock shack, a dingy hole in
the wall deserted by everyone except its Cambodian owners. Apparently many Asians have fled to Australia,
but so have some Americans, including Rey, who was injured and left behind to die
by his own brother (Scoot McNairy) after the shootout. As Rey, Robert Pattinson
continues his quest for artistic credibility, and for the first time has chosen
well (David Cronenberg’s flaccid “Cosmopolis” sounded better than it turned
out to be).
He has brown teeth, a buzzcut and — here is where his career
choice outpaces his acting — a mumbly accent from the American South that makes
him seem like a caricature of a backwoods simpleton. Rey is not the smartest
guy, and Pattinson captures his anger and sense of betrayal, but in the end can’t save him from cliche.
That weakness hardly matters, though, because Pearce is the magnetic center of
the film. Even if Pattinson can’t match his intensity, the two create a
believable symbiosis as together they track down Eric’s car and Rey’s brother. There
are guns and more shootouts and a confession that may or may not be true.
Michod (director of “Animal Kingdom,” the
fantastic, dark thriller about the personal dynamics in a family of criminals) and the cinematographer Natasha Braier use the
setting to good effect, as the barren outback mirrors the bleakness the economic
collapse has created. As Eric and Rey track the thieves, they encounter a few
other isolated people. One is strong but vulnerable: a doctor who jeopardizes
her own safely to help them (Eric doesn’t give her much choice). The other is immensely
creepy: a neatly-dressed older woman who sits knitting in the one clean room of
a squalid house, where she pimps out young boys.
It doesn’t take long to realize that ‘The Rover’ is not really
about the economy, even though Michod nudges us to consider what it means that
even in the middle of nowhere, a
shopkeeper with nearly empty shelves will only accept American dollars. The film presents the desperation and violence bred from a world where actions have no
consequences, a world that resembles a town in the Old West without a sheriff.
“The Rover” inevitably echoes older Australian films
that rely on the vast emptiness of the land, from “Walkabout” to “Mad
Max.” But the taut suspense, the intelligence and the layered moral
ambiguity of the film are distinctly David Michod’s.