'The Rover' Wanders a Nihilist Wasteland

The Rover
(Australia, 103 min.)
Dir. David Michôd, Writ. David Michôd, Story by Joel Edgerton and David Michôd
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Tawanda Manyimo, David Field
Courtesy eOne Films.
Chalk up The Rover under the list of 2014’s disappointments. This sophomore feature by Animal Kingdom’s David Michôd is as technically accomplished as his debut feature is, but audiences looking for another helping of exhilarating Australian cinema are in for a letdown. The Rover looks and feels great n its creation of a present-day dystopia, yet the unrelenting bleakness and pensiveness of Michôd’s vision has little payoff. More dull than thought-provoking and more a musing than a meditation, The Rover is a tragically empty wanderer.

The Rover contains barely a fraction of the explosiveness of Michôd’s first feature, but that ultimately seems to be the purpose of this exercise. This sedate second feature certainly contains a few bursts of graphic violence, so it’s much more a thinking-person’s film than it is an actioner. Michôd, however, doesn’t seem concerned with saying much with the film. A few references to the value of American dollars as the only viable unit of currency, which frustrates one character since dollars are dollars, offer the few tangible bits on which one may chew this tough anti-everything allegory. The Rover mostly speaks in the form of the strange score by Antony Partos, which seems more aggressive and more assaultive than does any of the action that transpires onscreen, and effectively so. The grating metal chords of The Rover carry much of the film through its overlong silent stretches that might lead one to wander as it travels the road in search of stolen treasure.

The Rover carries this prize in the car owned by Eric (Guy Pearce), who roams the desert like the man with no name. (The frequency with which The Rover calls attention to the leading man’s namelessness could almost be a drinking game.) A trio of hoods steals Eric’s car after a heist goes sour and Eric’s on the lam after his prized car. This chase might be the one genuinely thrilling sequence in The Rover as Michôd brings the cars together in a confrontation defined not by speed but by strategy. A tap on the brakes is the difference between life and death, and where other thrillers might define their hero by revving some engines, The Rover provides a heroic madman who creates his own rules.

Michôd and Pearce make the singularity of the rover doubly apparent when he backs down from the standoff and stealthily hunts the trio. The turn of events leads him to a string of odd characters, including a playfully obscure brothel granny and a dwarf who meets the bad end of a bullet. Why the rover goes through all this trouble for one ordinary, average, and by all accounts unremarkable car is cause for speculation.

Enter Rey (Robert Pattinson), the fourth wheel of the heist team. Eric finds Rey stumbling in the alleys with a bullet in his gut, and he takes ownership of him as one might a stray dog. Eric, a stuttering simpleton, was essentially left for dead like a dog when his brother (Scoot McNairy) and fellow crooks fled the scene, so the comparison is apt. The two men search for Eric’s car like man and best friend: the strangeness of their relationship almost brings the film redemption.

Pearce and Pattinson form an unlikely pair of rugged heroes. Pearce creates an eerie antihero with his subtle madness, and his turn in The Rover is craggier and more brooding than anything he has done before. Pattinson is the real standout here, though, as he continues the dramatic kick that began with David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. The Rover at first seems like prime territory for one to unleash the same quips on Pattinson that received for the Twilight films, but his truly unexpected turn is a bizarre yet consistently watchable feat. Rey is the direct opposite of the strong, silent rover: he’s a snivelling, stuttering coward without much gumption. Pattinson takes control of the performance, though, and grows Rey into a hybrid lost boy/twisted psychopath that challenges The Rover’s dismal bleakness. The more one finds Rey to resemble a shaggy dog, the more one finds Pattinson’s performance quietly compelling.

Michôd gives the actors ample room to grow their characters as The Rover’s slow and aimless plot lets Eric and Rey drift through the grey badlands. The Rover startles with its hauntingly gritty realization of the present-day meltdown thanks to the air of ambiguity Michôd presents with an elusive title card that simple situates the film a decade after “the collapse.” The overall bleakness of the barren Australian rural setting uses the natural elements of the arid landscape, with the help of some handy make-up that makes a cast of name actors look as if they haven’t bathed in months, to create a contemporary wasteland that looks more unnervingly real than the apocalypse does in John Hillcoat’s The Road.

Setting and tone aside, though, there isn’t much to The Rover. Ambiguity gives way to thinness and the grizzled, streetwise style of the film builds with a nihilistic force that becomes tiresome and feels empty. The light at the end of this road is pretty dim. Even the final shred of fleeting humanity feels disposable.

The Rover seems so consciously vacant of morals and politics that the overall meaninglessness of the film precipitates a kind of suicide. Even ambivalence is hard to come by in this tedious void. One probably gets the same thing from the film regardless of whether one sits through the whole thing or walks out forty minutes into the running time. The Rover just doesn't give a toot about anything.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Rover screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until July 24.

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