Silver Screen: The Rover **
It’s no surprise that Australia gave us one of the most memorable post-apocalyptic movie series of all time in Mad Max and its sequels. The Australian Outback already looks desolate and sunblasted, bombed out by God’s fury or man’s folly. It’s a readymade stage for a play about what happens after the end.
That same bleak, dusty countryside is the setting for David Michod’s somehow even grimmer tale of societal collapse, The Rover. Here the bonds of civilization weren’t blown apart with a nuclear bomb but rather came undone slowly following an economic collapse, a fate somehow more disturbing for its lack of grandeur.
It’s here, in a dingy bar, that a lone traveler has a coincidental run-in with a gang of outlaws. The traveler is Eric (Guy Pearce). His name is spoken once or twice, but he’s modeled after one of Clint Eastwood’s man-with-no-name characters. He speaks little and seems to care only about his sole possession, a dilapidated but serviceable car that the outlaws steal as they flee a shootout. Pearce’s somber traveler finds their abandoned truck, which would seem to be the better end of the trade, but he wants his car back.
Eric also finds one other thing the outlaws left behind: Rey (Robert Pattinson), a gutshot dimwit left for dead among the remnants of the shootout. Eric takes Rey to a doctor who nurses him back to health, all so Eric can jam a gun into his face and threaten to kill him if he doesn’t help him find the car.
Dim as he is, Rey has his own agenda. He feels abandoned by his brother (Scoot McNairy), who left him behind on the battlefield, and wants revenge. And so the two men set off on a road trip across a decaying land in search of retribution.
Though punctuated with moments of stark violence, The Rover is sober and contemplative. It lets its mysteries unfold slowly and never moves to answer some lingering questions, such as what caused the inciting shootout or, more vexingly, why Rey speaks with an American hillbilly drawl when everyone else, including his brother, is Australian. Director Michod has a keen eye, and his painterly portraits of landscapes capture both the beauty and menace of the foreboding setting. (Eric and Rey seem to do all their traveling just at sunset.) It is undeniably a deliberately crafted movie helmed by a confident filmmaker with a clear vision.
But I can’t think of a single reason to sit through it. Why, exactly, would a person want to subject themselves to this relentlessly depressing slog? It offers no insights, no formalistic invention, no characters we haven’t seen before in better, more balanced movies. The amoral man living by his own code who only wants to be left alone and to keep what’s his is a character type bordering on a cliché at this point, and though Pearce’s portrayal is flinty and impressive, what’s it in service of, other than showing us how flinty and impressive Pearce can be?
The Rover’s great thematic concern is the horror and depression of living in a world without structure or consequence. It’s a valid concern, but one Michod treats with relative simplicity as he indulges in the kind of nihilism and hopelessness teenage boys so often mistake for profundity.
During the movie’s final moments, the true motive behind Eric’s relentless quest is explained. The big reveal is supposed to play something like a tragic punctuation mark at the end of a grim punchline, but mostly it’s preposterous, another in a series of poses to demonstrate just how thoughtful and sardonic Michod can be. Misery is not its own reward.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.