Another year, another grim thriller set in a dystopian future. This time (again), it’s Australia. Based on years of cinematic evidence, the land down under is the place you go to escape drug dealers (Crocodile Dundee II), commune with talking animals (Babe) or get your ass shot off (everything else).
That’s incredibly reductive, but is there a better place to set a dystopian future than Australia? This is a country with animals that can kill a person if he looks at them askance. Why not assume its arid regions will invite a kind of human nastiness, too, especially after the implosion of the global economy?
David Michôd’s The Rover is set “10 years after the collapse,” and though context reveals little, it’s clear that the collapse brought about the collapse of everything—food, shelter, government and reasonable expectations of police protection. The human landscape depicted in The Rover is as bleak as the desert in which it takes place.
In this landscape is Eric (Guy Pearce), a taciturn man whose face looks haunted. By what, it isn’t clear, but when we first see him sitting in his car, gnats and flies buzzing around his face, we know he’s beaten down. By life. By the collapse. By whatever.
He enters a makeshift bar and helps himself to a drink and a splash of cool water while the proprietor looks on holding a shotgun. Moments later we’re in a car with three criminals hightailing it away from a shootout. Henry (Scoot McNairy, who seems born to play roles like this) is shouting, blood streaming from a bullet wound in his leg. “My brother!” he screams.
That brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson), has been left for dead by the trio. Henry, in his anger and rage, lashes out at his accomplice Archie (David Field) in the backseat, and before long their vehicle overturns and flies by the bar where Eric drinks. The criminals pull themselves together, break into Eric’s car and the commotion causes Eric to leave his stool. When he sees the men driving off, he hastily gets their vehicle back into working condition and takes off after them.
The following car chase is thrilling and unusual, as Eric gains on them, nearly overtakes them, and slows down as Archie points a gun at him. When they realize Eric won’t quit, they stop. Eric approaches, demands his car’s return and, as he’s about to turn Archie into Swiss cheese, Henry whacks him over the head with a shotgun. Like Rey, they leave Eric for dead.
Mistake. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know Eric is a man with nothing to lose, and he makes no pretense of being anything but a desperate and, if need be, violent person. By chance, Eric crosses paths with Rey, and they form an uneasy alliance to find Henry and the others.
There are many coincidences in The Rover, and that’s its one shortcoming. But in a land where petrol is hard to come by, it’s believable that people will cross paths again and again, if only because they can’t travel easily.
Coincidences aside, none of The Rover works without Pearce. To have an antihero as a film’s center requires an actor with great skill and the ability to engage the audience while performing horrible transgressions on other people (though you could argue Eric would rather be left alone). The first time he kills on screen, it’s so shocking, unexpected and terrifically violent, you’ll be glad someone like Pearce is playing him. (See also: The Proposition for Pearce playing a horrible but sympathetic person.)
Part of Pearce’s appeal is his handsome angular face and the way his eyes can convey every emotion while he says little. Think of Clint Eastwood in his early career with better thespian skills and an even meaner disposition.
The other great performance in The Rover is by Pattinson (really!). Rey is an ignorant, nervous, twitchy dum-dum, and Pattinson plays him to the hilt without overdoing it. Rey also provides two welcome moments of comic relief in a movie that needs a dose of humor.
That’s one of The Rover’s triumphs. Even in its darkest moments—and they’re dark—there are pieces of humanity in Eric and Rey that keep them from becoming the worst of the worst, like Henry and his cohorts. And in the final scene, after Eric has retrieved his car, after all the killing and blood and ruminations on existential crises, there’s a decidely human moment of heartbreak and loss that may just tug at your heartstrings.
The Rover (R)
Dir. David Michôd; writ. David Michôd, Joel Edgerton; feat. Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field
★★★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Opens Fri, June 20 at Santikos Bijou