THE ROVER has a jaunty sounding title. The idea of roving or wandering the countryside has always had a romanticism about it. The dream of leaving the confines of a city and living off the land is the stuff of legend and folk music. It’s also how 7/10 grey nomads plan to spend their retirement. However there are no happy wanderers in this movie. Director David Michôd’s latest feature THE ROVER is set in the near future of Australia, ten years after an economic disaster called The Collapse. It plays out entirely in the desert. Jauntiness is in short supply as are food, ammunition and petrol.
Guy Pearce plays a loner called Eric. His car is stolen by a gang of robbers whose heist has gone wrong. Two of their number, brothers Henry (Scoot McNairy) and Rey (Robert Pattinson) are injured and separated. Eric has a burning determination to get his vehicle back and eventually Rey becomes his hostage. Eric and Rey travel through the desert looking for Henry and the rest of the gang.
For the most part, THE ROVER is a slow-burning, two-hander road movie. Eric is a broken man who may always been this angry. We are not given any comforting back story to work out this man. We see how the theft of his car gives focus to his fury. He intimidates and manipulates Rey who is out of his element. Rey and his brother are originally from a southern part of the USA. They travelled to Australia to work in the mines. Rey is a simple young man who seems lost without his brother telling him what to do. Although Eric is clearly a threat to Henry, Rey attempts to ingratiate himself with the aggrieved older man. This is his go-to survival method.
Eric and Rey are two damaged souls reluctantly journeying across a hot and dusty landscape. Along the way, they meet the local inhabitants; people who are the remnants of communities, struggling to survive. The rule of law has vanished. The police are gone and now a military force attempts to keep order in heavily weaponised armoured vehicles. Despite this, people mostly have to protect themselves. Whatever is left of the government is far away in Sydney. Early on, Eric enters an opium den. The owner (Gillian Jones) makes her living prostituting teenage boys. Nothing is being produced in this land, so people who aren’t digging rocks out of the ground have little to trade except sex and drugs.
Writer/director Michôd and his co-writer Joel Edgerton have created a universe of unremitting bleakness. The post-apocalypse portrayed by the Mad Max films is a world of hope compared with this Australia after the Collapse. There is no joy here. Loss and anger are the only surviving emotions in this land. In as much as the movie fits into the apocalypse genre, it also takes its place with narratives about foreigners in the inhospitable Australian interior. It sits comfortably alongside novelist Patrick White’s Voss or John Hillcoat’s film THE PROPOSITION (2005).
Whether this film will be a hit with fans of Michod’s ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010) remains to be seen. It is an intense experience with two excellent central performances. Pattinson is very good indeed as Rey and this could represent a game-changer for his career. Pearce’s murderous Eric exceeds his best work in LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) and MEMENTO (2000). However audiences may feel the story itself not particularly accessible. I found it needlessly enigmatic at times. While I appreciate being allowed to connect-the-dots to understand the world of the film, I thought too much was left unsaid about the consequences of the Collapse.