Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Tawanda Manyimo, David Field
Director: David Michod
Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
David Michod's ambitious crime saga Animal Kingdom was one of 2010's genuine surprises; a film with a familiar story about criminal loyalty, familial angst, and a young kid coming of age amidst violence and recklessness that never exactly went where one expected it to. Aided by widescreen compositions from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Anthony Partos' ominous synth-driven score, Animal Kingdom emerged as a master class of mood-based atmosphere. It was also a calling card for Michod, who drew massive critical acclaim and peaked interest from studio execs desperately looking for the next Scorsese. With The Rover, the talented writer-director has defiantly moved away from protecting whatever mainstream acceptance he many have gained by making a film likely to alienate with it's sparse dialogue, skeletal plot, and unbearably dark tone.
The movie posits a world where individual's actions have little meaning beyond their immediate needs, and where, moment to moment, absolutely anything can happen. This is a purposefully oblique, despairing, and existential take on the now over-used post-apocalyptic genre that plays less like a thriller (which the ads seem to be pushing), and more as an arty western. To that end, soft-spoken ciphers wander into desolate towns, engage in clipped conversations with strangers, and things often end in sudden shootouts and bursts of meaningless violence. There's a lot of stoic gazing, barren landscapes populated by decaying vehicles and scampering flies, and an emphasis on human behavior rather than the logistics of the overall story. The film takes place in the Australian outback, shows us only a few characters moving about without much purpose, and offers no backstory or exposition. In fact, the only major clue to what has happened to humanity comes from a title card that reads "10 years after the collapse." During these early moments, we are introduced to the steely-eyed Eric (Guy Pearce), a man who looks like hell and who seems to move in slow-motion. He jumps into action, however, after three criminals (played by Scoot McNairy, Tawanda Manyimo, and David Field, respectively) steal his car while fleeing from some unknown confrontation. With his penetrating thousand yard stare and clenched jaw, Pearce is riveting as a man who really just his car back, even if he has to kill everyone in his path to do so. His motivations are never really clear until the end, and even then, his actions seem to emerge more out of primal urges from some long forgotten past life than anything resembling rationality.
Michod stages Eric's journey to hunt down the thieves as a brutal death march. He teams up with a brother of one of the criminal's brothers who was left for dead named Rey (Robert Pattinson), a decision that seems to suggest that this will be a movie about two very different men coming to understand each other. But Michod's script, with story help from actor Joel Edgerton (from Animal Kingdom), isn't about redemptive character arcs or finding hope in the most depressing of circumstances. Rather, the film's ravaged future shows us masculine archetypes caught in a world that no longer understands masculinity. The fact that women are all but absent in The Rover is no mistake; this is a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which femininity has been swallowed by single-minded maleness, bent on self-destruction and penchant for pointless brutality. The larger issue of how the world got this way, much less the geopolitical implications, are never dwelled upon, though Michod does toss out details such as certain areas being patrolled by military caravans and the breakdown of Australian currency. More than anything, The Rover is about sustaining a mood of impending dread. Striking wide-shots of the barren Australian countryside and a dissonant, atonal score by Anthony Partos help give the movie an erie, unsettling quality. Meanwhile, Pearce's stoic performance, held mostly in his eyes, is fascinating in it's unpredictability. Eric is a shell of a human being, driven by forces outside normalized understanding, who makes decisions in the moment without any thought toward the consequences. Pattinson, who impressed as a vacant billionaire in David Cronenberg's 2012 art film Cosmopolis, gives a similarly intriguing performance here, though it's a much "bigger" piece of acting, full of affected mannerisms and tics. Rey is either a dim-witted idiot or some kind of socially maladjusted victim, and Pattinson often teeters on the edge of going over the top. However, the fact that Rey cannot fully articulate his feelings, especially in regards to his brother's love or lack thereof, gives him a wounded vulnerability, and Pattinson absolutely nails that aspect of the character.
There's something to be said about stripping away the cliched plot elements found in most post-apocalyptic tales and simply placing the audience into the fucked up hopelessness of a world without moral rules. However, the film's inscrutability can also be a determent when it relies almost exclusively on an evocation of despair. Despite impressive sound design, an off-kilter score, minimalistic miss en scene, and two interesting performances, The Rover doesn't really add up to much. It's clear Michod has talent, but as a visual stylist and evoker of mood, he's not quite Paul Thomas Anderson or David Lynch, two filmmakers that certain sections of The Rover clearly emulate. Of course, Mad Max references will also be lobbied, but Michod isn't interested in weird costumes or tricked-out vehicles. His apocalypse involves the breakdown of human compassion. His wasteland is one in which the worst impulses of humanity, particularly those of misguided men, are to blame for the implosion of society. As a series of death marches, The Rover is impressive. As a film offering any contextual meaning beyond nihilism, however, it feels only partially successful.