Let’s get this out of the way: “The Rover” isn’t going to sit well with many people. It’s a tough, brutal, violent piece of work that wears its nihilism on its sleeve, proudly and unflinchingly. By the end of the movie, many people will have died, and all but one of them will have had it coming. In lieu of the traditional antagonists and protagonists locked in a battle of good and evil, the movie relies on people who are in the process of losing their humanity, or who have already lost it entirely. When I think back on my film experiences, few titles have felt more despairing in my bones than “The Rover.” And yet, miraculously, here we have a dark and cynical masterpiece from David Michôd, that succeeds in spite of its every attempt to push us away.
To speak of plot points would, ironically enough, be pointless, because what drives “The Rover” so relentlessly is the actions of its characters, and not their destination. The movie opens in Australia “ten years after the collapse.” Exactly what the collapse was, the movie doesn’t say; although, because food and water are relatively scarce, petrol has become a bartered commodity, and people are prone to hunkering down in what’s left of their homes armed to the teeth, we can only assume it was society, in general.
Eric (Guy Pearce, almost unrecognizable), whose best quality is his sparse, asymmetrical haircut, sits alone at a rundown bar in the dregs of a dried and dusty wasteland, lost deep in a thought of no consequence to us. He barely registers a glance as a car careens out of control and crashes in front of the bar. But, when three men pull themselves from the wreckage and steal his car, Eric snaps from his reverie and sets off after the thieves. The search for his car will bring Eric into the lives of a great many people, all of whom he will either threaten or kill for the sole purpose of getting what he needs. Why is he so desperate to get back a piece of junk that looked as though it had already died and gone to heaven? The movie is cagy with this information, and I’m not so sure it’s even that important.
It quickly becomes apparent that Eric, for reasons he keeps unto himself, has given up on his life, and the lives of others, although I suspect the latter has less to do with the apocalypse than his clear disdain for his fellow man. He’s quick to pull a gun on people who displease him, and gives very little thought to pulling the trigger. It’s possible he’s a clinical sociopath, since compassion and empathy are all but absent in his heart. Guy Pearce has a tricky job playing a man with whom we can’t identify for his lack of self, and total disregard for others. And yet, Pearce allows glimmers of hope to shine through in Eric’s eyes—and only his eyes—at crucial moments, before blinking them away to some dark space in his mind.
So, what is Eric, who cares so little for others, to make of Rey, the American stranger he picks up, bleeding and nearly dead, from the side of the road? Eric brings Rey to a doctor, who scarcely has a chance to clean up the young man’s wounds, before Eric begins to grill him about the location of the car: turns out, Rey’s brother, Henry, was one of the thieves, and left Rey to die in the Australian heat. Rey knows where the car is, and promises to take Eric to it, thereby securing his safety, at least until they reach their destination. What follows is, at its core, a series of riveting one-sided conversations punctuated by violence, as Rey, humiliated at having been left for dead and desperate not to be left behind again, reveals bits and pieces of himself, and how he came to be bullied, abused, and ultimately discarded by his family like so much rotten meat. Eric does a lot of half-baked listening, but offers up no support, instead making it perfectly clear that nothing will interfere with his mission.
All of this leaves Rey to fend for himself in a harsh world full of people who value their own survival above all else, and we barely think it will be possible. He’s a backwoods hick with a southern accent so thick, it practically hangs in the air. His body doesn’t so much move, as tick with anxiety that seem to emanate from his bones. When he speaks, it’s often with an air of utter incomprehension of what he’s saying, so that we think he might be a simpleton. But Rey’s a little bit smarter than that, able to stay just out of Eric’s crosshairs, and fully capable of grasping the implications of a decision he makes late in the film that will change his life. Rey is arguably the single good soul in the movie, a man who only wants to be more than what everyone has told him he is. Robert Pattinson’s performance is a master class in control. All the physical idiosyncrasies could easily have come across as mannered and technical, but Pattinson makes them seem effortless, as if springing from a deep well of damaged psyche.
There’s an astonishing scene near the end of the film, as Rey, on the precipice of doing something stupid, sits alone in a car, in the dark, and sings along to a pop song. Does he understand the implications of what he’s about to do? Possibly, although he gives no sign either way—no evidence of nerves, no hint of apprehension. Just a simple action, sweet and childlike in its innocence. It’s a beautiful moment, the calm before a violent storm, and Pattinson hits it perfectly. If there was ever any question that he’s thrown off the shackles of Edward Cullen and matured into a gifted actor, “The Rover” answers it loud and clear.
[Note: If you haven’t seen director David Michôd’s remarkable debut “Animal Kingdom,” with its fierce central performance by Jacki Weaver, do yourself a favor and check it out. I think you’ll find that “The Rover” makes it look like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”]