In 2010, director David Michôd proved that his name, the cast and Australian cinema are worthy of our attention with the acclaimed crime drama Animal Kingdom. Said attention, however, I believe will be less powerful for The Rover as its minimalist approach provides the audience a gripping but ultimately divisive experience.
Ten years after the world has gone to pot due to an economic collapse, the Australian Outback becomes an attractive spot for people from all over despite the scorching heat, limited resources, gun-toting residents and absence of morals. The movie begins with our titular character Eric (Memento’s Guy Pearce) sitting in a bar blaring Chinese music when three robbers – an Australian named Archie (Chopper’s David Field), a Kiwi called Caleb (Rage’s Tawanda Manyimo) and an American known as Henry (Monsters’s Scoot McNairy) – steal his car after wrecking their getaway truck. Turns out the 4-wheeled property is special to Eric, as we shall find out in the end, prompting him to give chase but not before “recruiting” Rey (Cosmopolis’s Robert Pattinson), Henry’s younger brother is left behind by the gang at the scene of a botched robbery.
With sparse dialogue and method of world-building through scenery, the film resembles a full-blooded Wild West feature – just with desolation and bleakness added in to achieve its dystopian vision. Composer Antony Partos (Disgrace) and cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Milk of Sorrow) do a superb job of reflecting this atmosphere, with harsh-sounding, aboriginal-influenced compositions and creeping movements with extreme clarity, respectively. These two elements fit so well into the footage that I find myself transfixed to the screen, feeling weary from the harsh environment and a population that is even more so. What we have in the end is an apocalyptic setting of the most convincing level.
While I admire Michôd’s approach of stripping down to the bare bones of narrative and character – similar to Animal Kingdom where the focus isn’t the crime family’s dealings but just the family – it seems like he has overdone it in The Rover. Our main characters Eric and Rey behave realistically in this universe, their deeper layers or even forefront motivations are left unsaid because it’s unnecessary for them to do so. It works for the film, beautifully I might add, but isolates its viewers as they might struggle in accessing the on-screen players and, in turn, realizing the significance of them plus the story they inhabit. These non-verbal stretches are not only lengthy, but frequent as well. One might feel in the dark most of the time due to the scarce dialogue and when characters, setting and story details are open for viewers to intepret. There’s no denying that Michôd's screenplay has a strong emotional undercurrent, but only those willing to dig past the intentionally vague surface will be able to sense it.
The film, then, relies on the shoulders of its actors all of which are spectacular. With an intense gaze and unkempt look, Guy Pearce proves that he’s the one guy to leave alone for your own good. How he is only beginning to garner attention baffles me. In a shocking turn of events, Robert Pattinson pierces through the single image we know about him to deliver a believable dimwit plagued by tics and stutters, a kid who’s clearly unprepared in a world like this. He definitely has the acting chops, should the right materials – like this – come his way. Though a guy-heavy film, a supporting turn from Gillian Jones (Oscar and Lucinda) as Grandma is quite powerful. Again, Michôd has chosen the perfect cast, but they can only do little in supplying the narrative if the writing is light. It should be noted that in Animal Kingdom, characters and the proceedings are interesting mainly because of what they say.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate The Rover, but I find myself begging for more vibrancy after becoming numb by the taciturn trait the Outback and our main characters possess. I admit, after seeing the reason for Eric’s relentless pursuit of his car is revealed at the very end, while touching, I believe The Rover could’ve been better shorter or as a short. Michôd still has it – the ability to maintain a tone throughout, generate raw performances and create memorable shots – but his sophomore effort warrants more intriguing content within its solid set-up. The Rover is daring, but at the same time, polarizing.