David Michôd evokes the outback as post-apocalypse in his gripping new film.
“Australia 10 years after the collapse”—so reads a title card at the beginning of The Rover. A post-apocalyptic road movie, David Michôd’s follow-up to his intense 2010 crime thriller Animal Kingdom is anything but a repackaged Mad Max impersonator. Possessed of a cold brutality all its own, the film would not be out of place amongst the ranks of the harder Ozploitation cinema such as Mario Andreacchio’s Fair Game (1986) or Richard Franklin’s Roadgames (1981). Built on a similar consistent thread of underlying tension to his previous work, The Rover is an exacting genre piece anchored by Guy Pearce’s simmering, seldom spoken lead Eric. Forget Nicolas Cage’s latest ‘wild-man’ effort Rage—Pearce gives a master class in barely contained, occasionally spilling over anger, generating as much tension through sheer presence as any of the formal production elements. He is surprisingly well matched in Robert Pattinson as Rey, the dropkick younger brother of one of the gang of thieves Eric ends up hunting after they steal his car. Rey and Eric make for unlikely—and in Rey’s case reluctant—road companions around whose developing relationship the film turns.
The arid Australian hinterland naturally lends itself to a post-apocalyptic theme supplying as perfect a setting as you could desire. Michôd and company’s imagining of the near future follows a common depiction of changing global balance of power from American imperialism to a newer kind of Chinese imperialism. (Other examples of this playing out can be seen in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series turned feature Firefly/Serenity and in Rian Johnson’s time travel drama Looper). In The Rover’s rural Australia, Chinese dialects are commonly spoken and much of the sparse commerce in border towns appears to be driven by an ethnic Chinese populace. It is an interesting touch that the generally wiser, survival hardened Eric does not appear to speak any Mandarin whereas generally weaker seeming Rey does, showing himself to be more of an asset on the journey than expected.
Displaying the narrow scope and focus of a short story, The Rover is never in danger of getting tied up in plot twists or lost in character murk. In this sense it plays like John Hillcoat’s narratively tight ‘outback Western’ The Proposition (2005) which, incidentally, was also driven by the performance of Guy Pearce in its lead role. Where both films are quite grim, Pearce’s character in The Rover is a much less concerned figure. If he was once a farmer, Eric has seemingly fallen into state of violent fatalism with little care for himself or those around him. The film’s action sequences, when they arrive, are spare and to the point. People are shot and go down. There are no heroics or elongated, stylised match-ups. Good and bad luck works in both directions and our protagonist is no honour bound knight in armour, shining or otherwise. Even those on whose help Eric calls are not afforded courtesy or latitude past the point where they are useful to furthering his single-minded goal. Not that he softens his approach to get what he wants, but rather he is simply an inexorable force you either move with or get out of its way. In this, he seems a natural product of his environment which is similarly unforgiving. The desert is captured in a multitude of long shots allowing for inescapable dust and heat ripples to occasionally soften the harsh glare of the light on various cars, fences, and figures. If not quite as strong a film as Animal Kingdom, which applies a meditative layer over its base tension, The Rover’s focused intensity still makes for a gripping genre experience.