“The Rover,” the Australian dystopian crime drama from director David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”) is a fascinating cross between a western and neo-noir. And the pairing of Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson is an intense psychological study of abuser and enabler. For Argentinian cinematographer Natasha Braier (“The Milk of Sorrow,” “XXY”), this is a breakthrough movie. Shot on film in the hot outback, she helps convey a hostile environment where survival has put humanity on hold.
“There’s something really interesting in this world — a clear sense of atmosphere and mood,” explains Braier, whose 2012 Olympics short, “Swimmer,” caught the director’s eye. “The purpose of every scene is not always apparent. David and I had a lot of interesting conversations about his whole creative process. Why everything is there and what he wants to say. I tried this game of trying to have David define a scene with a sentence or a paragraph and sometimes he didn’t know. It made him rethink the meaning and placement of scenes.”
But it worked out well, aside from the heat and the flies. The cinematographer got to experiment with long takes and choreographing subtle movement with a Steadicam and dolly. Pearce’s character is a tough, mysterious loner whose car is stolen by a group of thieves, and he relentlessly pursues them to retrieve his prized possession. Braier liked revealing his character in spurts, obscuring his face in the first act.
“He’s hermetic in the beginning and very slowly he becomes slightly more human. And of course this is the work of a great actor but in terms of the cinematography we also tried to do that with the way the camera sees him or not sees him. We’re always three quarters back or we’re right up front in the darkness. And as the film progresses and he starts to engage with the character that Robby plays, we get closer and there’s more light on his face.
“We envisioned the interiors to be dark because people didn’t have electricity. The economy of the movie is the economy of crafts and people are using minimal resources. There’s almost no water. And the outside is very hostile. The interiors are also trying to be protected from the sun so there is no direct sunlight in any interior in the movie. And we try to echo the feeling that you have in real life coming from a really hot exterior in the desert and your eyes have to work hard adjusting to the lack of light inside. We overexposed the exteriors and made them brighter than usual. And then when we go back outside you get an overwhelming sensation of brightness and heat.”
Car chases certainly posed a challenge for a low-budget indie. They had three vehicles for the van and two for the Commodore and had to quickly get the shots they needed and then set up subsequent takes in the other car.
“I think the scenes that were more powerful dramatically were the conversations between Guy and Rob. For instance, when they talk in the diner near the hotel before Rob [inadvertently kills someone].I think those were very important to define the dynamics and the tension between the characters. But at the same time, they are straightforward shots and it’s all in the performances. So maybe they were not the more exciting for me as a cinematographer. But those were the scenes where I looked at David and we said, ‘OK, we have a movie now.'”
While Braier expected Pearce to deliver a powerfully non-verbal performance, she had no idea what to make of Pattinson, who sheds movie star glam for his grimiest character turn yet. She hadn’t even seen him in “Twilight.” “But I was just blown away from the first moment I saw him. I think he’s a natural. He’s just born with this quality. There are a lot of actors that have this technical ability. They’ve been working for many years and have learned and refined [their craft]. And Rob has something very instinctive, which is why he’s so famous and loved by girls all over the world.
“He’s a very intelligent person but also very emotional. It’s quite connected. So I think that gives him a gateway to channel whatever character he’s playing from someplace deep. And he came up with backstory about being abused and treated badly. He was always the one in the family that they would bully. And he feels so abandoned. So he’s coming from that psychology where he can fall into this abusive relationship with Guy.
“But David had a clear idea from the very beginning, which is that everyone in this movie comes in pairs because this world is so hard that you cannot be on your own. So everyone that Guy meets on the journey is with somebody else, except Rob who gets left behind and they team up.”
And that’s when they both discover a sense of humanity that transcends mere survival during this global crisis.