(UK-based Rohan Morbey blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, and though he got to The Rover after its US run we fully agree with his assessment that it's one of the year's finest movies. We're delighted to repost his enthusiastic review, and hope you'll follow Rohan over on Twitter!)
The title card tells us we’re in ‘Australia, 10 years after the collapse’. Guy Pearce’s Eric sits in his car, a nondescript BMW, as the wind outside howls through the open desert landscape. The world outside the car is desolate, dry, and dust clings to the window like a reminder that it will never go away. When Eric leaves his car and gets a drink, another car loses control, crashes, and is stuck. The three men inside have guns, one is bleeding, and they need a car to keep going wherever it is they are going, or get further away from where they have been. Director David Michôd makes the outback look so harsh, scorching hot and unforgiving that we wonder if there is even a place worth going to out here.
What follows is a simple plot in which Eric, with the help of Ray (Robert Pattinson), the ‘half wit’ brother of one of the men who took Eric’s car and left Ray for dead, will stop at nothing to get his car back. The plot and story are not what makes Michôd’s The Rover a stunning film, but rather the film’s ability to keep us hooked on such a simple premise. What strikes you most about the film is the unrelenting bleakness of the world we are placed in and how violence is part of the nature of man. The film's post-apocalyptic setting is not a fantasy but aggressively real, and shot using actual landscapes rather than a blue screen background. Buildings which seem uninhabited are actually ‘stores’ where transactions for cash still take place even if US dollars are now the currency. A military presence roams the area but we never know on whose authority they work, or why they seek to take people ‘to Sydney’. And just what exactly ‘the collapse’ was and if it is a worldwide event is never known, but it happened and that, like all actions in the film, is that. There is no going back or hope for change as Eric, in the other men’s car, drives around from place to place asking questions (mainly “where is my car”) no one has answers to in a land where every man, woman, and child is left to fend for themselves.
The film's moral compass may be hard for some in the audience to get behind. The man whose journey we follow shoots people dead without hesitation and people get killed wherever he goes, all because he wants his car back. In many ways The Rover is a Neo-Western, a ‘man’s gotta do’ film where the lines between good and bad are blurred or simply do not exist (think of James Mangold’s Cop Land or Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia). But questions are always on our minds as to how far we can forgive Eric’s path of violence whilst knowing so little about him. A snippet of backstory is granted about two-thirds in but this only deepens the moral ambiguity of our support (if that even exists) for Eric; when we learn of the contents of his car we feel emotions in juxtaposition. With the bloodshed for this (no spoilers here) we wonder what and who he has seen fall by the wayside in the past ten years, and what else he has done.
The car is all Eric has. Without the car he cannot travel but stealing it has taken away much more than just that luxury; it’s taken away perhaps the last thing which defines him, and his aggression and anger become primal instinct. Moreover, Eric is like a feral animal out there in the outback, roaming the land in search, belong neither here nor there; the collapse has turned him loose, with no law, no authority to stop him.
Playing opposite Guy Pearce is Robert Pattinson as Ray, and their forced relationship is one of the most interesting pairings you may see this year. Both live ‘by the way of the gun’ but Ray has hope at first; hope for a reunion with his brother and hope that God’s love will prevail. By the end, Ray is out for revenge on the brother who left him for dead, Eric having helped him see there is nothing and no one out there, just a man apart. Pattinson is excellent as the simple young man but cannot quite hold his own against the fury Guy Pearce brings; perhaps the unbalance in performance power is all part of their dynamic.
The look of the film is beautiful in its simplicity, adding to the feel of the film being a chamber play where the characters are the focus, not famous monuments now buried in sand. Shot on a budget of around $12 million, the film does a great job of making the impact of the collapse present in every scene; Eric’s hair is patchy like he’s cut it with a knife because that’s all he can find, and his single costume is a dirty and sweaty shirt, cargo shorts, and running shoes. Which raises questions: where was he when the collapse happened? Was he literally left with the clothes on his back and the rest of his world annihilated?
There is simply nothing to like in The Rover and not a single character to get behind, but Eric and Ray are all we have and this challenges us in a way rarely seen in today’s cinema. I want to be challenged by a film and make up my own mind about how I feel about the events and who is doing what to whom. Like so many original, non-tentpole films, The Rover has been overlooked at the box-office despite the Pattinson factor and I suspect it will have to wait many years before it has the wide audience it deserves. I can only recommend you see it for yourself; you will not leave disappointed.