PLOT: In an Australia wallowing in dusty squalor after the fall of society, a man with nothing to lose gives chase after the men who stole his last worldy possession - his car - with one of the gang's fallen brother in tow.
REVIEW: Australia has been portrayed as barren and moribund before in cinema, but David Michod's THE ROVER presents the continent as desperate and hellish as we've ever seen. Taking place several years "after the collapse" of government and society - the particulars of this collapse aren't explained - the outback is now a lawless wasteland, where the need for petrol and water is high and life can be taken away at a moments notice. Bandits steal what they want, everyone carries a firearm, soldiers patrol the roads but offer no safety or comfort. If you're picturing MAD MAX, think again: THE ROVER doesn't have any cliched post-apocalyptic inclinations, and it doesn't take you on a thrill ride. This is as grim and uncompromising as a picture like this gets.
A place like this breeds hard men. Guy Pearce stars as Eric, a grizzled loner whom, like everyone else in this world, is just trying to survive on a day-to-day basis. His stop a roadside shack is interrupted when three battered and angry thieves, having totaled their own ride after a shootout with the local military, steal his car. Eric doesn't take this lightly, and manages to pursue them for a bit before being thwarted. His single-minded fury unabated, he happens upon a fourth member of the ragtag group in the form of Rey (Robert Pattinson), a simple-minded American - and brother to one of the fleeing men - who was left behind after being shot during the group's fracas. Eric gets Rey stitched up, but only cares about one thing: getting his car back.
But this won't turn into a buddy picture or road-trip adventure. Eric is not a typical "hero"; he's a mean, crusty sonofabitch who is willing to shoot practically anyone who stands in his way or refuses to cooperate with him. What little we learn about him is not pleasant, and in any other movie he'd probably be the villain. Rey is more likely to command audience sympathy; with a SLING BLADE-ish speech pattern, the young man clearly has the IQ of a child. The knowledge that his brother left him behind to die - at first denied, but ultimately undeniable - eats away at him as he pathetically forms an attachment to Eric, a man who couldn't care less if he lives or dies. That the two ultimately depend on each other is only natural, because in this land you're either all alone or you're looking to the person next to you to save your hide, but that dependency is more primitive than anything else.
THE ROVER is not what you'd call a good time. Michod sets up his stark vision from the very first frames, so we're prepared for a bleak excursion into the heartless desert. It's an exquisitely photographed movie, even if the images comprise predominantly of dust, blood, sweat and rusty metal. To go along with the sparse landscape, Michod has stripped his narrative to the barest of essentials: No backstories or flashbacks are provided, no true complexity is given to the lead characters. When action comes, it's quick and loud and totally unglamorous. There is suspense, but of an uncomfortable, distressing variety. Any thought to injecting humor into the proceedings was the first thing thrown out. Even colorful supporting characters are in short supply; Eric and Rey encounter a kindly doctor (Susan Prior) at one point, but her warmth seems almost too much for the movie to bear, and her appearance is brief.
Michod's unembellished style of storytelling has advantages and disadvantages. It's admirable to see Michod cut away the fat, as far too many films are padded, weighed down by unnecessary tangents and fluff. But when THE ROVER is over, we're left feeling just as hollow as Pearce's Eric. There's certainly no atmosphere of victory in the end, and the journey has been gloomy at the best of times. Indeed, that there's no hope to found in this landscape is never in question, but have we come here simply to watch the agonizing death of a civilization, as one of the last men standing tries not to make the world a better place but only adds to the mayhem? If so, that's an extremely bitter pill to swallow. (I'll avoid going into the presumed allegorical implications in Michod's story; I don't know anything about Australia's government, past or present, so if he's making a statement about it, it's lost on me.)
THE ROVER's strength, aside from its power to pull you down to its harsh level, comes from the two lead performances. Guy Peace has perfected the stoic killer, having played the part so well in THE PROPOSITION, and here he brings a level of fierce intensity to Eric that makes him one of the more intimidating leading men in recent memory. We're never quite sure what's going on with Eric, but a strangely touching scene where he somberly, almost hopelessly gazes upon a dog kennel hints at raw wounds in the man's psyche. To use a cliche, if you look up "end of his rope" in the dictionary, Eric is pictured, and Pearce is thoroughly captivating in the role.
Robert Pattinson is a revelation. The actor, looking to distance himself from the Twi-hards even further, admirably transforms himself into the pitiful Rey, perfecting a halted southern drawl and the nervous tics that come with someone who is not altogether "there" upstairs. It could be a showy performance, one of those "look at me!" shticks actors love, but Pattinson inhabits the character without pretension, and it's easy to forget only a few years ago we were mocking him for his sparkles. After this and COSMOPOLIS, which saw Pattinson go the opposite direction and play a fairly loathsome person, it has become obvious the actor has a ton of talent to share.
Thanks to those leads and the omnipresent danger and desolation presented by Michod, THE ROVER leaves a serious impression. If one major goal of a film is to make you buy into its world, THE ROVER accomplishes that with brutal efficiency. Whether or not it's a world I'll want to revisit is another question entirely.