“The Rover” is an atypical film putting far more emphasis on mood and background than story and character. When you read its simple synopsis, you may expect something like Mad Max movies, but, though it has a similar type of apocalyptic background, it is mainly driven by its uneasy atmosphere as requiring some patience from you. You will probably be disappointed by its anti-climactic finale if you expect an action thriller film, but you may be satisfied instead if you know exactly what you are going to get from this movie.
Its story is set in a wasteland area located somewhere in the middle of Australia. The time is not specific, and we are only informed at the beginning that some big social/economic collapse happened ten years ago. While it is not clear whether that collapse was local or global, we occasionally get the glimpses of its effects throughout the film. Modern civilization is not entirely collapsed while public safety and order are maintained a bit by patrolling soldiers, but the palpable sense of desolation is always around people who seem to forget the purpose of life they had once a long time ago, and that is further accentuated by barren landscapes and shabby empty houses.
When we meet Eric (Guy Pearce) in his car during the opening scene, this reticent guy does not reveal much about where he is going, let alone who he is (in fact, his name is never mentioned in the film except during the end credits). We see him stopping by a bar which is also a gas station, and we can only guess about what is going on his troubled mind as he spends a little quiet time at the bar where there is no one except him and its owners.
And then a trouble suddenly happens. Three criminals running away from their crime scene have an accident right in front of the bar while they are quarreling with each other for some matter during their frantic drive. They manage to survive without any serious injury, but their truck seems to be broken, so they quickly get into Eric’s car and then promptly drive away from the scene as Eric begins to realize what is going on outside.
Fortunately for Eric, the truck left by these criminals turns out to be all right, so he quickly chases after them by that truck, and we get one of the tense scenes in the film as Eric approaches to the guys in his stolen car. It is apparent that, for some unknown reason, Eric is determined to get his car back by any means necessary, and we can see that he is ready to walk right into possible danger if that is required.
He fails in his first attempt, and he later finds himself waking up with the truck besides him, but then he happens to encounter Rey (Robert Pattinson), a half-wit lad who is young brother of one of the criminals. Rey was left alone to die on the crime scene due to his serious injury, but he manages to survive and then he comes across his brother’s truck – and Eric. Because Rey tells him that he knows where his brother and his accomplices go, Eric continues his journey with this unstable young man, who is not only untrustworthy but also may not merely be coerced to help him.
Watching their gloomy journey across the unforgiving world which can be utterly heartless, I could not help but think of Cormac McCarthy’s novels “Blood Meridian” and “The Road”, which are the harrowing depiction of extreme human conditions driven to despair and madness on merciless badlands. Almost everyone in this world looks like being pickled in each own desperation, and life and death do not mean much in their world, as reflected by the occasional bursts of violence in the film. Some may deserve what they get while others do not at all, but the world goes on without much care, and so do its people.
Such bleakness is well exemplified by a short conversation scene between Eric and a minor supporting character played by Nash Edgerton (he is the co-writer Joel Edgerton’s older brother). We are not entirely sure about whether what Eric tells to the other is true or not, but Guy Pierce is captivating to watch as revealing humanity inside his wretched character. He a single-minded man as callous and ruthless as the world he inhabits, and his remaining human side is disgusted by what he has become as much as we are.
On the opposite, Robert Pattinson, who has assiduously been trying to leave behind his stiff acting in Twilight films, hurls himself into a challenging role, and he holds himself up well as complementing Pierce’s gritty performance. Rey is not smart, but he is not as stupid as he seemed at first, and we gradually come to sense the possibility that he also has his own plan behind his awkward nervousness. Pattinson is especially good during the climax scene as his character becomes confused and conflicted about what he is soon going to do: did he decide to do that from the very beginning or is he just influenced by his interactions with Eric?
The director/co-writer David Michôd previously made an impressive debut with “Animal Kingdom” (2010), a memorable mixture of crime and family drama which was also one of my favorite films in 2010. “The Rover” is not a better film, but I like the way he sets the atmosphere for his film at the beginning and then push it all the way under his austere direction, and the main actors carry their film well with their solid performances. As I said above, this is not a movie for everyone, but you may admire how it handles its materials with some stark sights to linger on you after its somber, wordless ending.