Desperation remains the primary force in this heat-soaked, hard-boiled, stripped-back fable.
For David Michôd and his two-strong movie resume to date, hell is the machinations and misdeeds of other people, whether bonded by blood and confined within the urban landscape, or crossed by chance and prowling through a desolate desert. In his highly acclaimed debut Animal Kingdom, Michôd contemplated the insidiousness of family ties in the face of making the right decision. Now, his sophomore effort The Rover reverses the setting and situation, tracking a stranger and the outlaws who stole his car in an Australia that has collapsed ten years after war. Of course, the more the overt details change, the more the underlying idea stays the same.
The Rover first sets the solo Eric (Guy Pearce, Iron Man Three) ablaze with anger when three men – Henry (Scoot McNairy, Frank), Archie (David Field, Mystery Road) and Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo, Girl vs. Boy) among them – swap their ride for his. A chase ensues, through arid expanses and abandoned towns, and down the dystopian equivalent of dank and dusty rabbit holes. Along the way, Henry’s left-for-dead brother Rey (Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis) joins Eric for the pursuit, injured and against his will.
Aside from the obvious and aforementioned differences, perhaps where The Rover most strongly departs from its predecessor is in its relative simplicity; where everything was more complex than it appeared in Animal Kingdom, here there is little that cannot be taken at face value. Based on a story conceived by the filmmaker with Joel Edgerton (The Square), the narrative evidently enjoys its sparse standing and easy structure as it follows Eric from one fact-finding altercation to the next; however, what it also relishes is its parable-like parallels on the dog-eat-dog nature of society, as played out with rippling tension.
Bleak in its tale and golden in the tones of Natasha Braier’s (Chinese Puzzle) sharp and wide cinematography, Michôd’s movie perhaps best represents a neo-western filtered through the fears of a dark fantasy – one familiar for its casting of its protagonist into a world of wild wonders, and relatively fresh in its minimalistic and menacing approach to each and every encounter, in which grand revelations and acts of redemption are absent. Echoes of Cormac McCarthy linger, but The Rover does more than reflect the author’s combination of crime and place in its moody brooding. Perfecting his own specific atmosphere of unease, as swirling around his own lone symbolic soul, is a talent Michôd again demonstrates.
That archetypal outsider is given swagger and stoicism by a grimacing Pearce, playing the part with such quiet fortitude and physical restraint that it is easy to see another great Australian screen presence – Hugo Weaving, in The Turning, Healing or Mystery Road mode – also in the character. His primary co-star, too, also recalls the efforts of another actor, this time Brad Pitt’s performance in Kalifornia. As Pattinson again endeavours to shake the stigma of his Twilight claim to fame and resulting public persona, he is not only given a role to stretch his skills, but also a duo of perfectly-pitched satirical moments.
One calm and calculated, the other all tics and talking, Pearce and Pattinson make a fine pair, more so as their on-screen relationship progresses from antagonism to resigned acceptance. In a film that is about the inertia of interactions more than the individual, the central coupling keeps the human cost at the forefront, but it is desperation that still remains the primary force in this heat-soaked, hard-boiled, stripped-back fable.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Director: David Michôd
Australia / USA, 2014, 102 mins
Sydney Film Festival
4 – 15 June
General release date: June 12