The Rover


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

"Michôd’s film has bite, but it feels like individual elements are more satisfying than the whole."

David Michôd’s follow-up to his punchy crime drama debut Animal Kingdom, tips its hat to Ozploitation flicks such as George Miller’s Mad Max films, as well as road movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point. We are out on the highways and deserts somewhere in the Australian outback in Michod’s new post apocalyptic road movie, where scuzzy tarmac stretches into infinity, the only interruptions to the emptiness are small clapboard trading posts, and the clear sky eats ups huge chunks of the cinema’s screen.

Major cities, such as Sydney, are mentioned occasionally, but we never go there or see any larger signs of urban civilisation. As with the Max films, big, dusty, roaring cars are the best way of traversing this harsh terrain, and for one character in particular a car is the sole obsession that drives his arc. Given how empty Australia is, it is easy to imagine the law didn't run strongly in this depopulated landscape before the crash of civilisation dragged humanity down.

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We are told in the opening text that this is Australia "ten years after the crash", but this is a near future world that is not crawling with killer robots, or filled with the garish steampunk biker gangs from Miller’s films. The post apocalyptic aspect is underplayed, and there is some semblance of a functioning society, although it iswafer thin. Power sources exist for lights at night and radio equipment, there are weapons and gasoline for sale, there is the occasional sight of a military convoy, and currency is still accepted (it seems US dollars are preferred). Exactly what happened in this crash is largely left up to us to guess, but the presence of military patrols suggests martial law was the result.

Such a setting begs for a sombre and introspective story, which is what David Michôd (who wrote the script based on a story he and long-time collaborator Joel Edgerton developed) delivers with largely successful results, thanks largely to good use of the atmospheric landscapes, some eye-pleasing cinematography from Natasha Braier, and a fierce performance from Guy Pearce. Pearce plays Eric, a man on a single-minded mission to recover his dusty sedan from a trio of carjackers (led by Henry, as played by Scoot McNairy) fleeing a heist.

In a strikingly composed sequence in the opening minutes, we see the trio’s pick-up truck cartwheeling past the window of the dilapidated bar where Eric is slouched, the crash inaudible to both him and us thanks to the blaring music inside. As result of this crash, the trio jack Eric’s nearby sedan and flee. Unfortunately for the gang, it turns out that Eric is the ultimate badass. With Pearce giving Eric a glare and poise that makes him look like a dog about to pounce, he is the last person in Australia you want to steal from. Before long, he is giving chase in another truck, with hair-raising results. This opening act sets the tone: minimal dialogue (Pearce’s script mostly consists of direct statements or questions along the lines of "give me my f***ing car"), sweeping widescreen vistas, the blur of the endless road, and moments of short, sharp violence.

With the trio managing to elude him, Eric seizes an unexpected opportunity. Accidentally encountering the wounded and seemingly mentally disabled Rey (Robert Pattinson) at a very creepy brothel-come-circus run by a weird grandma (one of the many oddballs populating this barren landscape), Eric learns the young man is the brother of Henry, who seems to have abandoned his younger sibling after whatever heist they were pulling went wrong. Eric takes Rey as a kind of hostage, demanding he tell him where Henry, and his car, are. But despite his tics, slurred speech and seeming ignorance of complex affairs, Rey may not be as challenged as he first appears. He refuses to divulge any location to Eric, instead demanding he be taken along on the road. As the two venture on, getting swallowed up in the landscape, the dynamic between the two begins to shift.

Always visually striking, Michôd’s film is hugely helped by the accompanying soundtrack. Composer Antony Partos and sound designer Sam Petty should take a bow for their work here. Partos’ score showcases industrial distortion effects, tribal beats, screeches and wails that create a suitably melancholic and tense mood. Petty’s rich sound mix makes the landscapes feel alive and gives the action sequences, when they come, real weight.

I felt more ambiguous about the perforamnces. Pearce can do intense and haunted with his eyes closed (though they are usually open and wet with all that glaring here), and is suitably grizzled physically, with straggly hair, decked out in battered shorts and a shirt that looks like it hasn't been washed since "the crash". He conveys the look of a man who has lived though a crash in both senses of the term. But the sparse script and Pearce’s inward all-in-the-eyes performance gives us less to work with than we might like when it comes to Eric, although information about this vengeful figure is parcelled out to us over the runtime which helps prevent the character becoming too mechanical in his pursuit arc.

Pearce is particularly impressive when, confronted with a military figure in a later scene, he confesses in essence that the worst part of the collapse of society for him is not any physical deprivation, but the lack of consequences for the crimes he has committed. Pattinson too has been earning his fair share of praise for his turn as Rey, and though I appreciated the tension his character generated by being so ambiguous in terms of his capabilities (he might be Eric’s hostage but he might also be leading him into a trap) and the empathy he provoked, it is a distractingly mannered performance. The bonding the two go through, though it never blossoms into sentimentality, is also a little predictable.

Michôd’s film has bite, but it feels like individual elements are more satisfying than the whole, as thouogh a novella has been stretched out too far. In the absence of more meat to the narrative, some trimming would have made this a leaner, meaner beast.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2014
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In the near future, a man tracks the gang who stole his car across the outback, forcing the injured man they left behind to help him.
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Read more The Rover reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray **

Director: David Michôd

Writer: David Michôd

Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo

Year: 2014

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia, US

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