“What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age,” Guy Pearce’s unblinking protagonist is told as he begins his hunt for the men who took his car at the start of David Michôd’s brutal sophomore film The Rover. In this day and age, Eric has nothing else left.
The Rover is set in Australia 10 years after “the collapse”. We’re not told what happened; all we know is that society is in tatters as law and order operate in the loosest sense of the word. Violence goes unanswered, criminals operate in plain sight and good deeds are punished.
Eric is sitting in a dusty roadside bar when a car carrying three criminals, arguing about leaving Henry (the consistently excellent Scoot McNairy)’s brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) behind, spins out of control. When the crooks steal Eric’s vehicle he sets out in furious pursuit and comes across the wounded Rey. The two men begin a journey across the country that will either result in Eric finding Henry, or killing Rey.
This is Michôd’s follow-up to his grim crime drama debut Animal Kingdom, and his vision of the near future is a bleak one indeed. The harsh Australian landscape and relentless chase narrative inevitably recall Mad Max, but the brutal violence and harsh lyricism (not to mention Pearce’s presence) have more in common with John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s inspired Australian western The Proposition. Civilisation is dangling by a thread, the presence of law enforcement is almost entirely symbolic, and even family can’t be relied on; everyone is alone out here.
When the film opens, we’re not told where Eric comes from, what he’s done or why he’s so determined to reclaim his car. He’s even violently reluctant to give his name. As the film goes on, Pearce and Michôd start to give us glimpses into the character, but all we really know is that he’s capable of killing and he’s not going to stop. Any attempts on our part to imbue him with heroic or villainous qualities are countered.
Pattinson’s Rey is much more of an open book. Described as an idiot and a half-wit, he’s adopted the mannerisms of his more assured older brother without much conviction. Eric bullies him into obedience, and Rey in turn begins to treat his captor like an older brother. It’s a tremendous performance from Pattinson, who avoids easy choices and cliches to make Rey a sympathetic and ultimately moving figure. Eric’s looking for what’s his, and Rey is looking for family.
It’s this relationship that provides The Rover with much of its power. Pearce seethes with searing, desperate energy that’s beautifully matched by Pattinson’s mumbling, cautious attempts at optimism. Some of the film’s most affecting moments come when Michôd’s camera lingers on the characters when they’re alone: Pearce staring at a room full of silent caged dogs, or Pattinson quietly singing “Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful,” along to Keri Hilson’s ‘Pretty Girl Rock’ on the car radio.
The narrative is simple, the dialogue sparse and Michôd’s directorial style restrained. With everything serving to emphasise a lack of hope, it’s oppressively bleak and intentionally so, steeped as it is in the work of Cormac McCarthy.
Some may find its relentless grimness alienating, while the slow pace of its second half may cause others to lose patience, but this is a powerful piece of work with two stunning performances at its centre. “Whatever you think is over for me was over a long time ago,” Eric tells a police officer. The Rover is brutal and gripping, and its profound sense of loss gives it impressive emotional depth; it will stay with you long after the credits roll.