"You never stop thinking about a life that you've taken. It's the price you pay for taking it."
Australian director David Michôd made a name for himself in America with his 2010 directorial effort Animal Kingdom, which earned an Oscar nomination for a fiercely brutal Jacki Weaver. The film was remarkable in the way it pared away everything except character, making that the most important thing in what was masquerading as a crime drama. For his second feature, The Rover, Michôd pares things down even further, jettisoning most of what was already a relatively small cast for Animal Kingdom, and fixing his gaze on a pair of unlikely companions.
The title card that welcomes us into the world of the film simply reads: Australia. 10 Years After The Collapse. Eric (Guy Pearce) travels the Australian countryside, which has been ravaged by the unexplained collapse, pulling his car over to patronize a makeshift bar in what was once someone's home. A trio of criminals, led by an American named Henry (Scoot McNairy) crashes their car outside the bar and the crooks quickly commandeer Eric's vehicle. Eric manages to get their car working again and gives chase, staying calmly determined to reclaim his property despite the weapons his enemies are brandishing. When Eric attempts to attack, he is knocked unconscious, and when he comes to, the criminals have absconded with his car, but left him theirs for some odd reason.
As he begins his attempt to track down the men that stole his car, the injured Rey (Robert Pattinson) stumbles on his brother Henry's car, and Eric recognizes him as someone that may have information on where his own car has ended up. He takes Rey into the mountains to visit a doctor (Susan Prior), and when Rey's wounds are dressed, he uses a gun he's procured through rather unscrupulous means to tell Rey that he is to bring him to Henry and his car. As they travel the scorched Australian wilderness, pursuing what may not even be a reliable lead, Eric begins to realize that Rey is ill-equipped to handle the realities of this new society, and attempts to tutor him in the ways of survival.
This is a film that is very low on just about everything except for character. There are very few plot points, even fewer major incidences within the plot, little to no dialogue for long stretches of time, and virtually nothing to look at in the barren wasteland through which they traverse. It's a good thing, then, that these two characters are fascinating enough to want to spend 100 minutes with, despite the fact that they do and say very little. Eric is clearly uninterested in sharing any details of his personal life with Rey, whose slow-wittedness makes him something of an open book. Their relationship starts out of necessity, but following a few coldly dished out life lessons by Eric, and a gripping shoot-out in a motel, Rey begins to see Eric as the mentor that his own brother never was for him.
The interesting thing about the film, however, is that all of this is very much on the surface. You don't need to dig for these themes, as they're blatantly obvious, so it gives you a chance to just sort of fill in whatever blanks make the most sense to you for these characters. The film wouldn't be out of place in the 70s and early 80s Ozploitation movement that gave birth to such directors as George Miller and Ted Kotcheff, both of whom I feel comfortable placing Michôd right alongside, but even despite some moments of shocking violence, it's much more cerebral than a lot of those genre pictures were. Mad Max gave us the post-apocalyptic action, Wake in Fright gave us the over the top violence, and Walkabout gave us the beauty of the Australian outback, so what Michôd decides to do instead is to play on the audience's knowledge and expectations regarding those films, but subvert it by never giving them so blatant a pay-off.
Natasha Braier's cinematography is brilliant in its sparseness, its harsh contrast between light and dark, and in its beautiful stillness. There are so few female cinematographers, so it's always nice to see one excel at her craft. The film's script is very good as well, giving the audience all they need to keep pace with the film, but depriving them of enough to keep them wanting more. Michôd's direction is just as good as his script, always doing less than he needs to, and never succumbing to the temptation to get flashy with his camera moves or editing when it clearly wouldn't fit the style of the film.
The performances are all excellent as well, with Pearce proving that he's always at his best when doing very little. He has a gift for subtlety that I wish more directors would tap into, since they always seem to want to keep him playing things so absurdly over the top as to be distracting. As good as he was in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, I think that even he would like to leave that performance behind at this point. Pattinson is equally good, much better than I expected, even in spite of the fact that I've always kind of liked him as an actor despite his poor choices in the past. He injects some much needed pathos into the film, and gives the audience a character to latch on to in the midst of a huge number of despicable people.
The Rover is a very good film, but not one that's going to set the world on fire. It's unsurprising that Michôd is a contemporary of another wonderful Australian director, Andrew Dominik, whose films are unsparing, but which audiences have, by and large, turned their backs on. They don't shy away from the reality of the world that we live in, or once lived in, or certainly will live in, and that's just not the kind of thing people want in a movie anymore. It's a sad state of affairs, but it's comforting to know that these filmmakers are still out there, producing consistently top notch films despite the public's reticence to embrace them.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
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