About two-thirds of the way through The Rover there’s a delightful and unusual moment in which Robert Pattinson’s character Rey is seen by himself, at night, sitting behind the wheel of their parked car in the outback, fidgeting (as he does perpetually) and singing along to the pop song “Pretty Girl Rock” by Keri Hilson, the key repeating line of which is “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”. The ironies here are multiple.
For one the filthy, thirsty, bleak-as-hell aesthetic of The Rover dirties up the appearance (both physical and spiritual) of everyone who walks, stumbles or simply dies on its stark canvas. The idea of beauty here is, at least on the surface, laughable. And then there’s the self-aware Pattinson, thinly crooning a chorus line that comes bundled with weight for his own particular celebrity. If the Twilight heartthrob is sick of being an easy punchline and wants to be taken seriously as more than just a pretty boy, then making films like The Rover is exactly the way to go about it.
Set 10 years after some cataclysmic cultural event (referred to via text at the head of the film merely as “the collapse” and never again by any of the characters), David Michôd’s second feature presents a baron, poverty-stricken vision of the Australian wastes. Pitched tonally half-way between Mad Max and The Road, it’s an economical but wholly absorbing depiction of a broken society operating without a satnav. A world where bartering is everything and if you don’t own a gun your days are, essentially, numbered.
Based on an idea by Joel Edgerton, The Rover opens with Eric (Guy Pearce) driving a road to nowhere. He stops off at a squalid watering hole, but fails to notice when his car gets stolen by three men, hightailing it from some deal-gone-wrong or other. Evidently prizing the car – or something in the car – Eric begins a dogged, relentless pursuit of the men (led by Scoot McNairy’s Henry). Having seemingly lost them, Eric seems out of options. That is until Henry’s wounded, feeble brother Rey (Pattinson) stumbles directly into his path. Eric offers Rey a simple choice; take him to Henry or die.
Pearce, a man who rarely puts in a bad performance, gives his best, most complete work here since possibly Memento. Gaunt, terrifying, totally without compromise, he makes Eric a force to be reckoned with, staring out through shell-shocked eyes that are little more than black pools. Imagine Eastwood’s Man With No Name but without the cocksure swagger and (at least in appearance) a far sketchier moral code. The script is lean – No Country For Old Men lean – allowing Eric to barely give an inch at any time, and yet Pearce’s performance allows depth and layers to the character. It is only a beautifully written late-game conversation with a military officer than allows Eric to open up at all. When he does the reveals are as shattering as anything else here.
Going toe-to-toe with him, however, is Pattinson. While Rey is very much a supporting character to Eric, Pattinson seems to have grasped this opportunity with both hands. To his credit he has wrung a memorable performance out of it; a twitchy, nervous, juddering creation that bristles with equal parts innocence and jackal-like opportunism. You’re never quite sure if Rey loves Eric like a surrogate brother, or is scheming a way to kill him. It’s an important uncertainty. This is no buddy road movie (although by the end you’ll swear it was). The journey these two men take together serves both of them differently. It’s a complex relationship in which both need something from the other, whether it’s something they’re able to articulate or not.
Michôd works wonders here. The Rover is, quite simply, one of the best pieces of genre fiction you’ll see on screen all year. A sun-bleached, gristled depiction of masculinity at the ends of the Earth. Women are scarce in this world. Even the dusty, blown-out old brothel Eric encounters offers men and boys. But one senses that this is not so much an oversight as a pointed narrowing of focus. A depiction of the roles men fall into once the rules have been taken away, and also a damning portrait of how easily we might abandon morality. How close to gone those things that make us righteous are, as well as the lengths one might have to go to in order to preserve them.
The camerawork throughout is breathtaking. Pretty much every shot seems perfectly judged. While high praise is required for the score by Antony Partos; a clattering, insidious, sometimes atonal set of pieces that shrink-wrap the film perfectly, teasing out the tension, especially in the early stretches as we get to know it’s world. As for the writing and the mood evoked; I’ve mentioned two films based on Cormac McCarthy novels already, and not by accident. His imprint is keenly felt here. Ultimately, this is the film we all wanted The Counsellor to be. It’s a violent film, but the impact of the violence is not its gratuity, but how matter-of-fact it is. There’s no sensationalism here, no expanded time or wailing death scenes. In fact the film that comes to mind is Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. The way bodies just drop dead weight… It’s all the more chilling and effective.
The Rover thrives on what is inferred but not directly shown or expressed. The insinuations are often so much more powerful than the truth. What were Rey and Henry running from? Does it matter? How do some of these men know each other? There are dozens of unknowns here that Michôd is wise enough to leave the audience to ponder. It gives the film much of its power. As such it’s hard to understate how frustrating the final scene is; the only point in the film in which Michôd shows us too much and bursts the bubble. In terms of how I’ve score the film below, it’s dropped The Rover by a whole mark. Some will be grateful for the reveal and sense of closure, even if it leaves them unsatisfied. For me it was severely detrimental to the film overall. A misstep that I wish wasn’t there.
Nevertheless, there is so much good work here that I still wholeheartedly recommend delving into this tough, black-hearted and dangerous world. A blistering piece of violent fiction, one that warns us simply of the costs incurred whenever we let our own standards of compassion, humanity and justice slip even a little.