Fusing a number of quasi-apocalyptic influences into a hybrid work with a pungent character of its own, The Rover suggests something like a Cormac McCarthy vision of Australia halfway between today and The Road Warrior era.
David Michod’s follow-up to his internationally successful debut, the Melbourne gangster saga Animal Kingdom, is equally murderous but more pared down to basics, as desperate men enact a survival-of-the-meanest scenario in an economically gutted world reduced to Old West outlaw behavior. Debuting as a midnight attraction in Cannes’ official selection, this intense and bloody thriller, which A24 has already locked up for U.S. theatrical release, looks to find a responsive audience in specialized play. As recycled as many of the individual images here may be — its forbidding, lifeless landscapes are populated almost entirely by bloodied, grizzled, sweaty men with guns enacting eternal violent rituals in pursuit of vengeance — Michod has nonetheless developed a very specific setting for his elemental drama. It’s a time “10 years after the collapse,” when, from the evidence, the Australian economy has gone south and locals are reduced to scavengers while Asian mining interests control the purse strings. Ruffians, many of them foreign, can’t find work and so have turned to crime; no authority is in place to keep order, and people who might once have been warm and welcoming have turned wary. Everyone seems to have, and need, a gun at hand.
With all these grim geopolitical conditions serving as backdrop, the foreground action is as elemental as that of a thousand old Hollywood Westerns. While taciturn loner Eric (Guy Pearce) makes a pit stop in a ratty Asian roadside lounge, three desperate characters — nasty old Archie (David Field), young black man Caleb (Tawanda Maryimo) and hot-headed American Henry (Scoot McNairy) — ditch their pickup truck and steal Eric’s sedan. Jumping into the pickup, an incensed Eric gives chase and, after an unusual stop-and-start pursuit, ends up very much the worse for wear.
As freshly staged as it is, this scene-setter annoys with its numerous dramatic implausibilities: Why do the bandits prefer Eric’s car to their own? If they didn’t want the owner to pursue them, why didn’t they just drive off in both cars? And, having eventually caught up with them, why does Eric physically draw so close to obviously dangerous men? But these distractions are soon kicked to the side of the road by the appearance of the badly wounded Rey (Robert Pattinson), Henry’s younger brother, who was left behind after a gun battle. Frazzled and fried, Rey speaks in a halting, fractured manner that suggests he might not be quite all there upstairs. But he wants to get Henry, so he and Eric, men near the end of their respective ropes, head further into the outback to settle some scores with mutual nemeses.
It’s a journey that writer-director Michod, who developed the story with actor Joel Edgerton, uses to explore a multitude of extremes — of desperation, soullessness, viciousness and environmental hostility. If one imagines for a moment that Eric is going to become something resembling a sympathetic protagonist, such notions are dashed the moment he needlessly kills a tough little person who’s selling him a gun. The most friendly and humane person to turn up in the entire film, a warm-hearted woman (Susan Prior) who reflexively calls Eric “sweetheart,” doesn’t last long either after he enters her sphere, and it can fairly be said that the film all but wallows in the squalor of a world in which every human being is viewed with automatic suspicion and where even a smidgen of openness or kindness will not only be perceived as weakness but will be taken advantage of.
As the two men scour the countryside looking for Henry and his cohorts, Eric messes with Rey’s head, insisting that his brother left him to die and otherwise playing on the vulnerabilities of a sensitive but mentally challenged hick who almost could have stepped from the pages of a William Faulkner novel. His stubble, dirty yellow teeth and injuries muting his physical beauty, Pattinson delivers a performance that, despite the character’s own limitations, becomes more interesting as the film moves along, suggesting that the young actor might indeed be capable of offbeat character work. But always commanding attention at the film’s center is Pearce, who gives Eric all the cold-hearted remorselessness of a classic Western or film noir antihero who refuses to die before exacting vengeance for an unpardonable crime. Why he so intently wants his car back he never says — it’s just where he draws the line, where the outside world went one step too far. Michod eventually provides one significant emotional explanation for Eric’s hollow heart, much in the way that Sergio Leone would use one late-revealed incident to define his antagonists’ villainy.
At least as responsible for giving The Rover its distinctive tone as the unnerving violence, edgy performances, parched settings and Natasha Braier’s superior cinematography (film, not digital, was the medium of choice) is the extraordinary soundtrack, which, in its wild, idiosyncratic weirdness, is probably the most effectively eccentric and radical film score since Jonny Greenwood’s for There Will Be Blood. Composed by Australian Antony Partos (who also scored Animal Kingdom), with heavy contributions from sound designer and additional composer Sam Petty and existing source music, the track moans, cracks and wails with bizarre audible elements that blur the line between music and natural sounds and emanate from instruments both identifiable and not. The effect is both hypnotic and disturbing, pertinent to what’s onscreen and out of nowhere. In all events, it magnifies and enhances the already intense nature of the experience.
Production companies: Porchlight Films, Lava Bear Films
Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field, Anthony Hayes, Gillian Jones, Susan Prior, Richard Green, Tawanda Manyimo, Jamie Fallon
Director: David Michod
Screenwriter: David Michod; story by David Michod, Joel Edgerton
Producers: Liz Watts, David Linde, David Michod
Director of photography: Natasha Braier
Production designer: Jo Ford
Costume designer: Cappi Ireland
Editor: Peer Scibberas
Music: Antony Partos
Rated R, 102 minutes