I’m not sure if it was the work of meticulous makeup artists or an indication that Guy Pearce barely bathed during the shoot, but at one point in The Rover, I noticed that there was a line of deeply embedded dirt running along a crease of skin on the actor’s neck.
That sort of intensity – in the costuming, in the acting, in the harrowing violence – is a hallmark of The Rover, which takes place in the Australian outback “ten years after the collapse.” There are 102 minutes here, and not a single one lacks tension.
Not that The Rover is some sort of hyperactive spin on Mad Max. Writer-director David Michod creates suspense not by heightening genre conventions, but by slowing them down, subverting our expectations and creating an atmosphere in which anything (especially bad things) can happen.
Take that venerable conceit: the car chase. In Animal Kingdom, Michod’s claustrophobic family crime drama, he staged what may have been the slowest instance of onscreen vehicular pursuit I’ve seen – and it was all the more riveting for its deliberate pacing. There’s another idiosyncratic car chase at the start of The Rover. Guy Pearce’s Eric, a mysterious drifter in suburbanite shorts and running shoes, witnesses his car being stolen outside a dismal, roadside bar. He instinctively lifts another car and heads off in pursuit, but slows down when the thieves show that they’re carrying guns. Now, normally two things might happen in such a film: the hero would either ram into the adversaries in a burst of macho action or he would stop completely and the scene would end, leaving the drama to be picked up later. Here, though, Eric continues to follow the criminals at a safe distance, confusing them (and us) with his passive-aggressive persistence. Finally they pull over and demand to know what’s wrong with him. “I want my car back,” he demands.
These are his first words, and the fact that they arrive some 15 minutes into the film is an indication of the minimalist nature of The Rover. From Pearce’s taciturn performance to the largely barren landscape to a discordant soundtrack consisting mostly of jarring, percussive rumbles, the movie is stripped bare to the essentials, much like the scavenged world it depicts.
This streamlined sensibility also applies to the plot, which is essentially one long chase scene. Soon after his sedan is stolen, Eric encounters Rey (Robert Pattinson), the younger brother of one of the car thieves. Wounded from some earlier confrontation, Rey appears to have been left behind by the others. Eric takes him hostage, hoping he’ll know where they are heading. And so a road movie of sorts – or maybe some sort of post-apocalyptic buddy tragedy – begins.
Michod creates suspense not by heightening genre conventions, but by slowing them down, subverting our expectations and creating an atmosphere in which anything (especially bad things) can happen.
If The Rover is a post-apocalypse film, it’s my kind of one. There are no elaborate sets or special effects here, only vaguely familiar roads and buildings, all of which seem to have suffered some strange form of decay. We get glimpses of possible clues to what happened – Chinese script on passing train cars, a preference for American rather than Australian currency – but The Rover never explains what exactly went wrong. All that matters is that something catastrophic has upended the normal world order, leaving the country in a shell-shocked malaise. The places Eric passes through have the feel of ghost towns; the dark, decrepit buildings may have been homes or vague businesses, but many are abandoned. Enter one, and you’re as likely to find it empty as you are to find dozens of people lethargically lying in the shadows.
Compared to just about everyone else we meet in these places, Eric is a man of action – maniacal in his singular pursuit of his car. Pearce hasn’t been this doggedly determined in a role since Memento, yet we don’t develop the same attachment to this character that we did to the memory-loss victim there. In fact, Eric’s early negotiation over a gun purchase ends with such sudden brutality that it had me wondering if Eric might just be the most nihilistic person in the film. Life is cheap in The Rover, never more so than when it’s held in his hands.
That scene also sets the moral compass for the movie. If there was any chance that The Rover was going to become some sort of giddy, ultra-violent thrill ride, it’s snuffed out at this exact moment. This is where the movie draws the line between itself and an outback entertainment like Mad Max.
If Pearce’s Eric is coiled, still and lethal, Pattinson’s Rey is jittery and fidgety – constantly squinting, as if every word directed his way has the bright glare of the sun. Eventually it becomes clear that Rey isn’t only in a daze from his injury; he’s also mentally challenged. I’m a perennial skeptic of such performances, yet save for a climactic scene in which Pattinson overdoes the tics, he makes the character work. Rey’s limited understanding gives him a degree of innocence, especially in a moment, amidst the chaos, when he sings along to a vapid pop tune on the radio. Unlike Pearce’s Eric, Rey can still inhabit a carefree moment.
Mostly, though, Pattinson impressively captures the confusion and fear of not being able to process things as quickly as those around you – which becomes especially problematic when everything around you is a matter of life and death. His mind can’t always shift into survival mode. “Why are you telling me this?” Eric asks him after Rey shares a random story. He replies, “I just remembered it, and it interested me.” But there’s no need for such things in this dismal time and place.
Eric, interestingly, is called out in a similar way earlier in the film. Wandering through a grim, dark storefront, he encounters an oddly calm older woman (Gillian Jones) sitting peacefully in an oddly tidy back room. “What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age,” she says of his aggressive demands for information about his car.
But it turns out that it is worth getting worked up about, especially on this day, in this age. When Michod finally unveils why the car is so important, some viewers will no doubt find the revelation deflating, even silly. But I found it ingeniously apt. After the violence has finally, mercifully subsided, the movie ends with an elegy for peaceful domesticity. No, I take that back. “Elegy” is too prim of a word for The Rover. This is a primal scream over justice denied and civilization lost, both on a personal and global scale.