Upon reading up on The Rover, David Michôd’s follow up to his critically acclaimed first film Animal Kingdom, a curious description popped up a couple of times. The phrase used to describe the film was a ‘futuristic western’, a description to strike fear through the heart of any marketing team. Visions of films such as Cowboys and Aliens and Wild Wild West appear unbidden in the mind. A more accurate descriptor would be post-apocalyptic (or just apocalyptic, as Mark Kermode points out). The events in The Rover take place ten years after ‘the collapse’, a societal catastrophe that is left unexplained. Suffice to say, things are looking bad for the survivors. Products such as petrol are scarce and the currency of choice in the outback of Australia is the US dollar (a comment on the worldwide hegemony of the US perhaps?). There are people from a lot of countries scuttling across the outback; emigration is another theme that Michôd contemplates, albeit subtly.
The film opens with wordless scenes as Eric (a superb Guy Pearce) wanders around the outback. His world is a sun drenched and parched place, all endless vistas and low buildings. There is a sense of violence from Eric even whilst there is no real outward sign of aggression from him. He seems tightly
coiled and ready to explode. Nearby a car is travelling at speed with three men inside: Archie (David Field), Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo) and Henry (Scoot Mc Nairy). They are arguing about what went wrong ‘back there’ and it is clear that a robbery has spiralled out of control. Henry is agitated, as his brother Rey (Robert Pattison) was left at the scene, presumed dead. Violence explodes in the car and it leaves the road in spectacular fashion. The gang see Eric’s car parked beside them and quickly decide to take it. Eric comes out and in classic Mad Max style takes off after them. Meanwhile back at the botched robbery attempt, Rey wakes up amongst a pile of bodies. Injured, he struggles to a car and drives off. The stage is set for a crazed chase through a No Man’s Land of abandoned cars and abandoned lives.
The Rover is at its best in its opening half. The opening 40-50 minutes are simply terrific. Unconcerned for the most part with plot and narrative constraints it veers off the road more than once for some strange interludes. There are some excellent scenes with minor characters that are genuinely odd and really feel other-worldly. Australia has become a harsh world of broken people, deeply suspicious, feeling their lives ebb away in quiet desperation. The film holds on these bleak moments so that you feel all of this. The old world has gone and it is never coming back. It is quite chilling and beautifully shot, with a mournful soundtrack to accompany it. The narrative kicks in around the halfway point. There are certain plot points from then on which seemingly have to happen to advance the narrative towards its conclusion. Sadly this robs the film of its beguiling hold and has the effect of making the film predictable and a little dull towards the end.
The Rover is a harsh and bleak film. Shot beautifully by Natasha Brier in glaring close-ups with particular emphasis on Guy Pearce’s face, weather-beaten like the landscape that surrounds him. The soundtrack by Antony Portos is jagged and shrill, perfectly suited to the film. Pearce is excellent in a part that is clearly written for him. Those haunted eyes of his sear in the Australian sun. Pattinson tries hard, but his performance is full of ticks and ‘acting’ mannerisms that all but pull you out of the film. His day may well come, but unfortunately this isn’t it. Michôd is a fine filmmaker and no doubt he has some excellent films ahead of him. Ultimately, The Rover is hamstrung by its eventual adherence to the rigidity of the sub-genre, and therefore offers up precious little that is new. There are some clunky moments throughout particularly towards the climax. It’s worth seeing in the cinema for the sublime visuals and the first half – just don’t go in expecting a classic.