After taking critics and audiences by surprise four years ago with his incredible debut film ‘Animal Kingdom’, Australian writer and director David Michôd has delivered his highly-anticipated second feature, ‘The Rover’. Reuniting with actor Guy Pearce, he’s wisely chosen to take a step away from complex crime sagas and crafted something a tad more unusual. After making one of the most acclaimed Australian films of this century, Michôd challenges himself with a far more ambitious and ambiguous project.
‘The Rover’ begins with a title card establishing the location as Australia, ten years after The Collapse, before launching us into its post-apocalyptic outback landscape. The film never explains what kind of apocalypse it was, but everything suggests that it was an economic one. Eric (Guy Pearce) stops at a bar in the outback for a drink of water, when his car is stolen by a gang of armed men. He begins to pursue them across the outback to get his car back, even though he’s found himself another. Along the way he encounters Rey (Robert Pattinson), the brother of one of the men, who had been left for dead after a shooting. Initially, Eric forces Rey to lead him to his brother and Eric’s car, but as they journey across country, both men find in the other a chance for personal salvation and understanding that they’ve so sorely lacked.
Where ‘Animal Kingdom’ was an almost operatic family saga, ‘The Rover’ works more as a fable. At first, its simplicity is a tad confusing, with you expecting something far more robust and in line with Michôd’s previous work, but the slow burn of the film and its considerable breathing space allow for a strangely hypnotic and dream-like experience. The screenplay is sparse, dialogue constructed of simple sentences often repeated continuously and a narrative that unfolds in an almost episodic manner. This is also reflected in the filmmaking, which is still extraordinary and beautiful, but without the spit and polish of ‘Animal Kingdom’. One of Michôd’s strengths as an artist is that his work has a distinctly European flavour, and this is most evident in ‘The Rover’ in his approach to storytelling and dealing with his representation of environment and landscape. He and cinematographer Natasha Braier approach the Australian landscape in a manner that emphasises its bleakness and ugliness rather than its beauty. This probably has a lot to do with the narrative, but it also makes for a refreshing change from the same tired clichés. This is also reflected in Antony Partos’ score, a discordant symphony of ambient sounds more akin to the work of Jonny Greenwood, which just adds to the other-worldliness of the film. Rather than sticking with the same styles and principles that already proved so successful with ‘Animal Kingdom’, Michôd and his team have done the daring thing and pushed themselves into new territory. The film moves slowly and rarely gives away any exposition or explanation, but something about its confidence and intensity make it a distinctive entry into the Australian canon. This isn’t popular filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination; this is Australian cinema by way of a European sensibility, emphasising character and landscape over action and dialogue, and thus far more intriguing.
Michôd is also proving himself a considerable talent in eliciting great performances from his cast. Guy Pearce has not been this good in ages, a figure almost carved from the earth itself, bubbling with tectonic fury. He approaches the work with a quiet yet palpable intensity, a dangerous surface cracking with hidden pain. Pearce has a doubly difficult job in that his motivation - to get his car back - isn’t explained. We don’t know why this object holds significance for him, but we’re in no doubt that he’ll do anything necessary to get it back. Just as impressive (but for very different reasons) is Pattinson as Rey. While Eric is a quiet stone figure who speaks only when necessary, Rey is a live wire, fidgety and erratic, constantly nattering in a Texan babble, and Pattinson knows exactly why. One man is the antithesis of the other, and Pattinson is as committed to the conceit of his character as Pearce. He’s also put through the wringer in this one, and demonstrates a bravery as an actor we haven’t seen from him before. His kinetic energy on screen and his chemistry with Pearce is a pleasure to watch, and makes his a far more interesting performance than you’d expect. There are also great supporting performances from Scoot McNairy as Rey’s brother Henry (here is an actor that gets more interesting by the minute) and Anthony Hayes as a Seargent the men encounter on their journey.
The Australian landscape is approached in a manner that emphasises its bleakness and ugliness rather than its beauty.
Those expecting an action-packed ramble across a post-apocalyptic outback cut from the cloth of ‘Mad Max’ will find themselves baffled and disappointed by the poetic simplicity of ‘The Rover’. This is a film that gives you very little, yet expects you to stay with it until its final moments of perspective. It’s unlikely to garner the same critical and financial response afforded to ‘Animal Kingdom’, because David Michôd hasn’t delivered a film easy to access - and in many ways, this is the best decision he could have made. His work so far hints at a great director in the making, and ‘The Rover’ is as impressive an artistic achievement as his first film. This is an elegant piece of filmmaking, tender and heartfelt and brutal. The world it presents is without hope or salvation, and all we can do is watch its survivors try and make what life they have count for something. It’s seems almost too good to be true, but ‘The Rover’ continues to prove this one of the best years Australian cinema has had in a very long time.