D: David Michôd / 103m
Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Gillian Jones, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo, Anthony Hayes, Susan Prior
Set ten years after a global economic collapse, and in the Australian outback, an embittered loner named Eric (Pearce) stops at a bar for a drink. His car is stolen by a trio of thieves led by Henry (McNairy), after their own car crashes following a robbery that has seen Henry wounded in the leg, and forced to leave his brother behind. With the car being his only remaining possession, Eric gets their car started again and chases after them. They stop and there is a confrontation that sees Eric knocked unconscious. When he comes to, Henry and his friends are gone. Eric journeys on to the next town where he obtains a gun; he also meets Rey (Pattinson), who turns out to be Henry’s younger brother. Like his brother, Rey is suffering from a gunshot wound. In return for finding medical help for him, Rey agrees to help Eric track down his brother.
Once Rey is seen by a doctor (Prior), the duo head for the next town where they stay at a motel. While in their room, Rey is shot at by a soldier but Eric comes to his rescue. The next day, while camping, Eric is apprehended by army sergeant Rickofferson (Hayes) and taken to a nearby army base. Eric reveals why he is so bitter and angry but the sergeant is uninterested. A few moments later, Rey bursts in having come to rescue Eric; with the sergeant and his men all dead, the pair escape and head for the next town, where Henry and his gang are hiding out. At the house where they’re staying, Rey, armed with a gun, goes in first…
The Rover is, at first glance, a meticulously crafted thriller that confirms the promise shown in its director’s previous movie Animal Kingdom (2010), but on closer inspection the movie proves to be a case of the emperor’s new clothes rather than anything more substantial. It’s a shame because it has much to recommend it, with often stunning visuals that underpin its lead character’s psychological distance from the people he meets. Eric is a man alone, both in company and in the vast stretches of the Outback that he travels through. He’s adrift in his own life, but he keeps his resentment of past events close to him, feeding off it, letting it keep him going; without it he would stop moving altogether. As portrayed by Pearce, Eric is a man clinging on to his sanity, a hair’s breadth away from taking his anger and pain out on everyone he meets. That he manages to keep himself in check so much speaks of the shadow of the man he used to be, and which is still inside him somewhere. Pearce gives an appropriately intense performance and makes Eric a fiercely relentless force of nature, largely unrepentant, and borderline psychotic. It’s a darkly hypnotic portrayal, and easily Pearce’s finest in years.
He’s matched in the performance stakes by Pattinson, who as the slow-witted Rey, commands as much attention as Pearce does, his slack-eyed look and simplistic understanding of his situation making Rey as much a casualty in his own way as Eric is. Rey is needy, so much so that he attaches himself to Eric in lieu of his brother’s presence, his loyalty changing depending on his proximity to whoever shows an interest in him or supports him. He’s the opposite of Eric, a (younger) man in constant need of company in order to validate his own existence, and almost incapable of acting independently, such is his reliance on others. Pattinson subverts his pretty boy image to make Rey effectively an awkward adolescent, his semi-vacant gaze never wavering, his panic in situations he can’t control the reaction of an emotionally under-developed child. It’s a stirring performance, one that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pattinson has a greater range than perhaps many people give him credit for.
With two such riveting performances it’s a shame then that Michôd’s script isn’t as well-structured, or clever, as it seems at first glance. There are too many moments where convenience drives the plot forwards, and few occasions where The Rover feels like an organic story, where the events involving Eric and Rey seem entirely plausible. The confrontation between Eric and Henry that results in Eric being knocked unconscious is a serious case in point: why doesn’t Henry just kill Eric, instead of leaving him alive, and with their car, and with the keys tossed carelessly aside where they’re easily found? The movie displays a keen sense of nihilism elsewhere, but here, with the encounter happening so early on, it just undermines the whole notion of Henry’s gang being any kind of threat to Eric, and the script pretty much abandons them from this point on, only bringing them back for the finale (it also undermines the notion that, in the future, life has become even less of a commodity than it is now).
There’s also the reason for Eric being so dogmatic in wanting his car back. It’s not until the very end that we discover the reason for his relentless pursuit, and it’s a reason that is bound to cause endless debate amongst moviegoers for some time to come. For this reviewer, it’s a “twist” that doesn’t quite work, and serves only to try and (in a way) rehabilitate Eric with the audience. It’s a brave move on Michôd’s part but again, for this reviewer, adds little to what’s gone before. Perhaps it would have been better not to know.
Where the movie is on firmer ground is with its location work and glorious photography courtesy of Natasha Braier, the Australian Outback looking both vast and unexpectedly restraining at the same time, its untamed wilderness as much a character as the people that inhabit it. Its rugged, inhospitable backdrop serving as a reflection of the hardships the characters have to endure to survive, Braier’s lensing brings out its beauty as well, and in the process, rewards the viewer with breathtaking vista after breathtaking vista. To complement the visuals there is a strong, percussive score by Anthony Partos that underlines the starkness of the surroundings, but which becomes more emotive as the relationship between Eric and Rey begins to change. It’s a subtle process but very well done.
Rating: 5/10 – with many aspects that don’t work as well as its writer/director may have intended, The Rover is likely to divide audiences for some time to come; what isn’t in doubt, though, is the quality of the lead performances which are well worth the price of admission.