David Michod’s “The Rover” (2014) opens with a steely-eyed Guy Pearce scanning the desolate horizon. Dark looks, blinding bright skies, sagging buildings, and a never-ending desert give you a hint that the setting is south Australian outback. The opening image alone tells us that it is going to be dark, edgy drama that isn’t going to find time to give viewers, the entertaining money shots. And, our guesses comes right as the ambitious David Michod’s second movies never trades off its pitch-black bleakness and never tries to exploit the bloody violence. Like the gunshot that echoes throughout the desert, every death and bloods spilled echoes in our and the primary characters’ mind. Don’t expect‘Mad Max’ style carnage, since you will only get an existentialist road movie like “Two Lane Blacktop”.
Although the environment of “The Rover” is dry and sparse, it isn’t set in a post-apocalyptic world. The film’s events happen 10 years from now, where the world is suffocated by a global economic collapse. The already dust-choked Australian outback deteriorates further, where only bad-ass and criminals survive. In one such empty town, the loner and empty-souled Eric (Guy Pearce) parks his Sedan to get a drink. But, soon his precious car is stolen by three robbers (Scoot McNairy, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo), who have botched their job and have also flipped their truck.
The three didn’t have an idea that they have lifted the wrong man’s car, as Eric fixes the trio's truck and chases them with a fervent dedication to get his car back. The chase turns futile, but he soon picks up a none-too-brighter passenger by the name of Rey (Robert Pattinson). Rey is wounded by a gunshot and also happens to be the brother of robber, who stole Eric’s car. Eric tries to get Rey to spill the location of the gang’s hideout. However, the hunt doesn’t lead us to spaghetti-western style standoffs.
The film’s protagonist fits the archetypal nature of Sergio Leone’s lone hero. He is an anonymous guy and haunted by his past life. But, the great difference is that ‘The Rover’s’ protagonist doesn’t have any noble or redeeming qualities. Eric isn’t a guy who takes unloads his gun on the skull of antagonists. He kills the dwarf who offers him the gun without a second’s hesitation (since he couldn’t pay $300 for the gun). When Rey is haunted by the image of little girl he killed, Eric doesn’t console him. He plainly says: “You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken. That’s the price you pay for taking it”. At one point, Eric tells a man what haunts him about his past crimes. That are some words we wouldn’t expect from the mouth of a primary character. So, in little ways David Michod’s script and direction (story is from an idea cooked up by him and actor Joel Edgerton) clearly stays away from the usual genre expectations of a lone gun-toting hero.
Many viewers wouldn’t feel satisfied about the movie’s destination (ending), where the protagonist does a starkly ironic or absurdist thing, when he gets his car back. May be Rey explains what viewers might feel about the ending, as he says in one of his conversations with Eric: “Not everything has to be about something”. The frustrating pace, the structure, and the climax itself are about the nothingness that gradually seeps in when civilization, love, and commerce are held at risk. Of course, David Michod’s has worked in a modest scale, when compared with his gritty crime/drama “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Although “The Rover” also explores the primal human behavior like “Animal Kingdom”, it is a little myopic in its scope. Nonetheless, Michod has once again proved that he is an uncompromising film-maker. He stages shootouts with enough wit and flair, but his vision refuses to be like a vulture that appreciatively looks at the dead bodies. Instead, the characters walk and talk as if they are carrying the corpses with them.
Guy Pearce is a handsome actor, but he likes to play dark, intuitive characters (best known for playing amnesiac in “Memento”), that challenges his persona. His austerity and seriousness undercuts the possible cliches of ‘collapsed-society’ movies. However, the surprise package is Robert Pattinson’s Rey, who keeps apace with Pearce’s immersive acting style. He is no more the ‘dude’ who played in ‘Twilight’ movies (his intriguing makeover started with Cronenberg’s austere and under-rated “Cosmopolis”). Pattinson’s Rey starts out predictably with few tics and awkward stammers, but slowly coalesces into the mind-set of a vulnerable boy-man, whose innocence remains intact. The odd bond between Pearce and Pattinson gives some spark, although the life and atmosphere are emptied out.
“The Rover’s” (101 minutes) off-kilter setting believes that less is more and entrusts the viewers to fill in the gaps. It is a brutish and barren drama set in the confines of an action-flick.