Ten years after an economic collapse, the Australian outback has become an even more lawless landscape – somewhere between occupied Iraq and the wild west. Mining is the only industry, but the coal trains are guarded by armed men. Shopkeepers point shotguns at their customer’s heads as they make change.
|Screenwriter||David Michod, Joel Edgerton|
|Actors||Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy , David Field, Anthony Hayes|
|OFLC rating||MA 15+|
A loner tracks the gang who stole his car from a desolate town in the Australian outback with the forced assistance of a wounded man left behind in the wake of the theft.
David Michod’s second feature, after the superb surprise of Animal Kingdom, is once again about the darker side of humanity, but this time, he doesn’t bother explaining his characters or their predicament. We never know what caused the collapse, although it seems to have been worldwide. Central Australia is now populated by American desperadoes, Cambodians running cafes, Chinese rent boys and gunmen. "The Asian century" is just a magnified version of the present, where Chinese demand for minerals makes Australia rich – except that this place is poor, one of the film's many mysteries.
Three criminals (David Field, Tawanda Manyimo, Scoot McNairy) are on the run after a shootout. We don’t know what they stole or why they shot a soldier. They grab a car belonging to a wizened and limping Guy Pearce, while he's in the aforesaid Cambodian cafe. There's a great and funny shot as the bad guys' original car skids past the cafe window at speed on its roof. That's as close as the film comes to humour.
The man with no name (Pearce) gets their crashed car going and pursues the three crims, one of whom (McNairy) is wounded. From his whining, we realise they have left his brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) behind at the crime scene. Pearce picks him up and uses him to find the others.
The Rover is hard-boiled and violent, but full of meaning and metaphor. That stops it from becoming a full-bore genre piece like Mad Max, from which it draws some inspiration. The approach is different: Mad Max was all about kinetic energy, the fun of the road, the brutality of the Australian landscape. It had less on its mind and more in the tank. Michod overthinks The Rover, to the extent that it feels constrained and nervy. It's an exercise in minimalist emotion, with an opaque but effective performance by Pearce.
If there is less spontaneity, there is more to think about, which can have its attractions. Pattinson, almost unrecognisable as a dim-witted boy from the American south, renovates his screen image with this performance, but the film offers meagre emotional rewards, given that the two leading men barely speak.
The hardness that so fascinated Michod in the character played by Ben Mendelsohn in Animal Kingdom is here more like deadness. Pearce's character is one step short of dead already, so he doesn't care what happens to himself. All he cares about is getting his car back. Some will guess the reason, which is another way of saying the film feels one draft short of ready.
Michod is certainly one of most exciting and inventive new Australian talents, and it's true that a second film is difficult after a great debut. The Rover is dark and engaging, with superb use of the heart-stopping landscape around the Flinders Ranges, but it could be accused of mannerism. Michod has tried to take out everything extraneous, but he ends up with a plot that we have to construct ourselves, and a punchline finale that is more suited to a short film than a feature.
What the film does best is atmosphere, rather than narrative. The sense of an Australian dystopia is hardly new, but here it actually looks convincing, partly because it harks back. Many of the locations feature buildings that were probably built in earlier booms, particularly the 1890s in South Australia. The idea of impermanence, of foolish hopes, pervades the film, alongside a sense of despair. The current financial distemper of the world makes it easy to perceive what Michod is getting at here.
There's nothing wrong with being spare in style and heavy with intent, but that thematic ambition has to be supported by story. The film needed perhaps to say less and do more.