With Animal Kingdom, David Michôd proved that Australia had a place at the table when discussing great new cinematic voices globally (and all but introduced the world to Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton and Jackie Weaver). With The Rover, he’s taken the next step towards auteurship in a stripped-down, sand-blasted, shaggily-moraled, post-apocalyptic Western saga. In it, Robert Pattinson‘s star shines bright, offering the best performance of the year so far and one certainly worth of chatter come Oscar season. It’s magical enough that Michôd has culled a truly jaw-dropping performance from the oft reviled Twilight icon (who was also strong in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis) but his minimalist take on what remains after society crumbles is a rawhide-tough slice of devastation pie.
With daily grinds that consist of moseying to a makeshift saloon and slugging through a mind-wasting concoction of God knows what, this is what the end of days looks like. Grim seems an understatement. Chalk white words sprawl over a midnight canvas, “10 years after The Collapse.” The use of proper nouns says it all. There’s recession, there’s depression and then there’s The Collapse. Collapse is the point of no return: end of days. And in these end of days, like the times of rangers pivoting on the horizon of some undiscovered stretch of land, life is a matter of a coin toss, imbrued with all the flavored variety of a salt-lick, and as unforgiving as a midday sun. Getting by is one gun-totting episode of Fear Factor after another.
We join the harrowed story following Guy Pierce‘s Eric, who looks to have had a real bummer of a day. He’s a classical take on the strong and silent type; a 10-gallon-hatless Man With No Name (although with such a mangy patchwork of hair, he would have really benefited from the ol’ cowboy hat facade.) Eric’s set in his wordless ways to the point that he’d more likely blast a hole in your head if it’d save him the trouble of conversation. Making nice just isn’t customary in these Collapsed times. All you have to do is stare a minute at Eric’s dirtied face to get that.
Enter Scoot McNairy‘s Henry and his small band of aged outlaws rabbling on about the score they’ve just made and barreling past a deserted stretch of highway where our antihero sips his diesel-infused cocktail. Henry’s bleeding but pleading they go back for his brother that they’ve left behind. As the dispute turns physical, the three stooges flip their vehicle, find it stuck amongst other wreckage, abandon ship, and clown car into the schleppy sedan that we saw Eric arrive in. He turns to look just as they peel off in his auto and then wastes no time getting on the road after them. His desperation is palpable as is his resolve and the mystery of “why” is one that will linger until the closing moments. As he tracks down the hapless thieves, Eric soon encounters the brother they’ve left behind, the simple-minded but complaisant Rey (Pattinson.)
As far as the plot goes, the rage-fueled cat-and-mouse chase pretty much sums up what remains (as does our curiosity of why Eric’s busted old sudan is worth so much trouble anyways). Similarly, the cast of characters remains small but nuanced; the vast drape of desert, with its merciless sand drifts and barren graveyard-like quality taking on a character of its own. It’s all but one big, gaping Sarlac Pit. Eric, then, is a new-age Boba Fett; blasting his way from the ravenous maw of human desperation but inclined to slip when wrangled by an unexpected tentacle or two.
Crafted in the spirit of Darwinian despotism, Michôd’s is a kill or be killed sandy sprawl. But even the great waste of the hollowed Outback calls for a modicum of reliance upon others. You can live by shotgun logic and quickdraw law but someone still needs to stock the bullets to keep this style of living greased and operating and have enough agua on hand to fend off fatal dehydration. Otherwise, people would be beating each other to death with sticks or cactus arms as they died of thirst. But we’re not at that point yet.
But for all the harsh bite of the outlands and those that occupy them, the real surprise in this sun-scorched country is a simple act of decency. When Rey ponies up and buys Eric a box of bullets, even after numerous threats on his life, it’s enough to catch us, and Eric, off guard. In a land bereft of sympathy, compassion lives on in dullards and animals. Even through his muddled diction, Rey’s approval-seeking glances speak volumes about where civility – an endangered species in itself – goes in a hostile landscape.
Moving into its final stretch, all the nimble elements of minimalism in The Rover are that much more notable. Antony Partos‘ score is screeching, as if the violin strings themselves are being tortured. Likewise, cinematographer Natasha Braier looks to have baked the film prints in a 450-degree oven. Just looking at her work is wont to give you a sunburn.
Aided in the story department by actor and countryman Joel Edgerton, Michôd is committed to playing things close to his chest and for good reason. In the long haul that is getting to know Eric, Michôd’s final trump card reveal is as pertinent to his character as any, and a handsomely accomplished character revelation to boot. But this is to be expected from such a devilishly left field effort. In the simplest of terms, The Rover is far enough off the beaten path to call for your attention and admiration, from a filmmaker buzzing with gusto, even if it is occasionally hamstrung by its candid straightforwardness. Nonetheless, Michôd’s tender hand and Pattinson’s awe-inspiring performance are quietly devastating.
As the action moves closer to a head, all our expectations of good and evil fade to reveal a reality far more, well, real. Shit happens. People deal. Pack your bags, collapse is coming. We can thank whoever we thank that our modern day arguments aren’t won by those who’s gun is lying closest to them. In Michôd’s shaken, crispy future, the stink of desperation is a burning pile of corpses.
But for every hundred Erics, there is a Rey. A beacon of hope to balance helmeted evil; a “tell me about the rabbits” simplicity to counter the post-Collapse incivility. Pattinson, as this 22nd century take on Lenny, has mined his gift. A solitary scene of him singing along to a mood-smashing pop song is enough to cement his ticky gumption but it’s the smaller moments, when he’s struggling to think things through, when he really shines. Each time Rey delays his speech, scrunched up and mumbling to find the right word, he secures his place in our sympathies as much as Eric’s. Accordingly, Pattinson earns solid consideration for that sacred golden trophy.
Like Rey, The Rover is simple without being simplistic, wandering without being directionless, and solitary without being one-note. And maybe most importantly, it’s a signal that Pattinson may yet be a star, but in an entirely different way than we first imagined.