Cars, speed and harsh landscape have been the basis of most locally made dystopian cinema. Think Peter Weir’s 1974 masterpiece, The Cars That Ate Paris, all three Mad Max films, The Chain Reaction (1980) and Brian-Trenchard Smith’s Dead End Drive-In (1986).
To this list we can now add the long awaited second film by Australian director David Michod, The Rover.
Set in the Australian outback “10 years after the collapse”, The Rover opens with a lone unnamed traveller (Guy Pearce), stopping off for water in a roadside cafe. Almost immediately, the film shifts to three men racing through the desert from a heist gone wrong. One of the men, Henry (Scott McNairy), is angry about having to leave his brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson), for dead at the scene of the crime. They start to fight, and their vehicle comes off the road. The three men climb out of their damaged car, grab the first alternative vehicle they see, which just happens to belong to the lone traveller, and take off again.
The traveller’s first words, “I want my car back”, form his mission statement for the rest of the film. Why he needs that particular car is unclear, given that he quickly picks up another functioning vehicle.
The traveller stops at a nearby town to buy a gun. This results in the first of the many acts of violence we see him commit, the murder of a dwarf gun dealer who will only accept US dollars for his merchandise, which the traveller doesn’t have. The traveller picks up Rey, who has survived the heist but is badly wounded. The traveller finds a doctor (Susan Prior), the only sympathetic character in the film. She patches up Rey so he can lead the traveller to his brother and the other men who stole his car.
The Rover has more than a few aspects in common with Michod’s first film, Animal Kingdom, released in 2010 (which I reviewed here). Animal Kingdom dealt with a young 17-year-old Josh who goes to live with his grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody and her family, who he hasn’t had contact with for years, after the death of his heroin addicted mother. Josh quickly realizes his new family is a pack of vicious criminals locked in a struggle with the Victorian armed robbery squad who have the entire family under constant surveillance.
Josh is not particularly intelligent and is completely out of his depth amongst the hardened criminals he is associating with. Pattison plays the character of Rey in a similar vein. A twitchy, monosyllabic, uneducated youth, Rey reminded me of the people who always seem to be being pulled over by the police in the US reality TV show, Cops, unable to fathom their predicament or offer a coherent explanation of why they are in trouble.
Michod provides little in the way of explanation for what has previously gone on in Rey’s life. All we know is he is from the southern US and came to Australia to work in the mining industry, which appears to be the only functioning aspect of Australian society left. As the film progresses, Rey forms a bizarre dependency on his captor, totally unreciprocated from the traveller. The role is a brave choice on Pattison’s part, even if it’s not exactly a stand out performance.
Pearce, on the other hand, who also appeared in Animal Kingdom, is terrific as the stripped to the bone character of the traveller. Michod declines to imbue him with even the slightest redeeming feature or sympathetic trait and, like Rey, we only know the barest essentials about him, that he was once a farmer and that he has done some very bad things. Is he as bad as he says he is? Is he just lying for effect? Or is he simply insane?
What elevates The Rover above the pack of similarly themed ‘stranger wondering in a post-apocalyptic waste’ films that have appeared over the last few years is the wonderful cinematography by Natasha Braier and the assured, measured way Michod depicts his future world. Food and petrol are in short supply. Everyone is armed to the teeth. US dollars are the only currency accepted by shopkeepers. Dead bodies hang crucified from power poles by the side of the road. Heavily guarded freight trains loaded with mineral wealth lumber through the desert, and groups of soldiers who work for some kind of unspecified power in Sydney patrol the towns.
The presence of Cambodian shopkeepers, Chinese rent boys and people like Rey in the middle of the outback, hints that whatever crisis happened was global in nature, that communities have been uprooted and flung into strange places. Reinforced by the haunting, minimalist score, the overall effect created by Michod, much like that in Animal Kingdom, is one of disorientation and looming dread.
It won’t be to everyone’s tastes but if you like the idea of a coal black noir dystopia rooted in traces of reality disturbingly recognisable today, The Rover is worth checking out. Michod has created the most brutal and uncompromising cinematic portrait of our future gone wrong I can remember since The Road in 2009.