by Philip Price
The definition of rover is a person who spends their time wandering. This interesting, edgy, somewhat vague word that has garnered several interpretations is used here to define a wandering, drifting society. There is one man in particular with whom writer/director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) is taken with in this transient existence and it is through this hardened and disconnected perspective we come to know the world ten years after it has seemingly collapsed. Everything about the world that Michôd has built through his imagery and his characters keep the outside world unclear and of little concern. This isn't a movie necessarily about anything as much as it is an analysis of what might happen were the structure we've always lived within to fall apart. All systems fail eventually, it is inevitable, but usually when something is perceived as failing it is because something better, more efficient has come along-it will have been superseded. This, unfortunately, is not the case in post-apocalyptic thrillers and while I am hesitant to use that genre classification at all I suppose it fits. The idea of society as we know it failing has always been an interesting idea because the reason something fails typically ties into the reason it was created in the first place. So, when we look at a world without any civilizing influences we begin to wonder what the point of it all was and why we allowed it to mean so much and determine such a portion of our lives, our happiness. Civility is cause for order and without either of them what we have is infrequent chaos and it is within one of these small pockets of havoc that Michôd introduces us to a protagonist, but not necessarily a hero, and sets us out on a journey with no urgent motivation. It isn't the trying to decode this incentive that pulls one into the film though, but instead the characters themselves and why they are who they are, how they have come to be this way and their own realizations of why they feel the need to take the actions they do. The Rover is an unnerving experience in many ways as it is slow, but never tedious. The actions that take place feel as random and authentic as the settings and physicality of the characters that the camera captures while all adding up to a beautifully depressing conclusion about what this life means to us and what our lives mean to others.
Michôd does not drop us into a world of good and bad people, like I said there is no real mention of motivation or planning, but instead we only come to sympathize with those we come to know better throughout the course of the film. I found it very interesting that one could essentially flip the story and follow those positioned as the villains of the plot and just as easily become compassionate with their plight. As it is though we come to know Eric (Guy Pearce) who we come to picture as an ex-soldier with the hardened exterior to match, but an intellectual soul that while he believes himself along with the world has already passed away still seems to be on a kind of self-discovering pilgrimage. Eric's "roving" as it were is as much about the physical actions he takes as it is the processes going through his mind as he's come to terms with the state of things. It is when a car of his is stolen, one of the last few possessions he has, that he becomes enraged with this kind of determination to get it back. The hijackers include Henry (Scoot McNairy), Archie (David Field) and Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo) who roll into town, engaged in gunfire and exit as quickly as they can leaving Henry's brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) as good as dead on the road. When Eric launches into a chase with his thieves and comes face to face with them it is startling to see him approach the armed men with no hesitation and when one of them asks, "What makes you think I won't shoot you?" he responds with a very matter of fact, "Nothing." There is nothing else for him to live for and he knows it and if this is the only thing worth fighting for well then he may as well go out fighting. As Eric is being left for dead by Henry and his cohorts Rey is making his way off of the scorching pavement and under the shade of a tree where he inspects the gunshot wound he has incurred only hoping (maybe) that someone passes through before he bleeds out. Upon waking up and realizing his misery has not been snuffed out Eric continues on his journey recruiting Rey along the way simply to point him in the right direction, but whom he begins to turn in an unexpected manner towards his own understanding.
In many ways this is the bleakest road trip movie you might ever come across. It is a beautifully barren film as shot by cinematographer Natasha Braier. I have heard it compared many times to Mad Max or even John Hillcoat's 2005 film The Proposition in which Pearce also stars but I have not seen. Taking place wholly in the lawless Australian outback the comparisons are understandable, but what made The Rover so engaging for me were the kind of philosophical questions and theories it was implying without ever discussing openly. It is truly a delicate art to be able to convey certain themes and ideas without integrating them directly into the dialogue, but Michôd seems to pull it off so effortlessly here with each factor contributing to a whole composition that work together brilliantly. In saying that I mean we are literally given two characters, one of which isn't a fully competent adult, and we are asked to watch as they develop an understanding of their dynamic and the repercussions it will have on the small worlds they keep in rotation around them. It would be too simple to dismiss Eric as a man simply searching for the meaning of life, but instead one of his few speeches give us insight into his state of mind, but not how he views the world but why he views the world the way he does. Everything in The Rover concerns itself with fate. Social rank and wealth mean very little in this environment and so we begin to see what it is like when film characters lives are actually governed by forces out of their control. It is a surprisingly effective tool in that Michôd and Joel Edgerton (who gets a story credit) give us such a thin plot that practically anything else could happen in this world that we know very little about and to which the film gives little scope. All we as an audience need to know though is that this is not really about a stolen car as much as it is man and the natural world. The things we will fear the most are our own kind and in another of Eric's few lines of dialogue he relays to Rey that the price of killing someone is the inability to forget them. Pearce delivers the line with such quiet assertion though we can't help but think these are the only real emotions he feels anymore, the only ones he has access to. These very precise moments come out of this unpredictable world only aiding the overall film to be both disconcerting and affecting.
In focusing on the characters much of the weight of the script and its subject matter falls on the actors portraying them. As mentioned earlier, Pearce plays things mostly stoic with only slight hints of a soul beneath the surface for the majority of the the running time, but it is in the few intermittent moments where Eric is afforded the opportunity to open up that we see something much more intense. It is Eric who guides the events we behold, but it is Pattinson's Rey who more or less decides how things are going to turn out. To dismiss Pattinson because of his past roles would be a true injustice to what he is able to pull off here. It is clear the former Twilight star is trying to distance himself from that franchise and he seems to be handling things well as I've found his choices at least interesting if not always successful. The fact alone that Pattinson's mind leads him to a place where he is interested in making films such as this opposed to Abduction is a sign of higher intelligence, of a more acquired taste and of an ambition that yearns for more than instant gratification, but a type of legacy. Rey is not the smartest guy, he has a bit of a slow wit about him, but he isn't dumb either. Near the beginning of their relationship Eric flat-out asks Rey, "What are you?" and it isn't so much that he can't gauge the type of person Rey is, but more that Rey is erratic and slightly mysterious as if he is purposefully only letting Eric in so much with a greater agenda behind the smiles and indistinct slurs he throws out. For Pattinson, this is the type of role he likely craves; playing someone so far removed from his public image as he is able to play up characteristics that will define the person for the audience without other aspects seeping into our opinion, namely vanity. Like the world around them, these two men have been slowly breaking apart for some time now. Pearce is a pro and handles his nothing left to lose mentality with a certain calm as his persona would suggest, but Pattinson highlights the film and continues to pull us in with his unpredictable performance (it truly is unpredictable, anyone up for some Keri Hilson karaoke?) that lead to a few of the most tense moments I've experienced in a movie theater all year. The Rover is like a tone poem with its pounding and ever-present score, describing the sparse, desolate environment and the desperation man will take to survive leaving you with a feeling you can't shake.