Now that final exams have ended, I've started playing catch up on some of the earlier films of 2014 that I missed out on.
In some ways The Rover is an odd choice for David Michod's followup to his great 2010 debut Animal Kingdom. It's a sparer, simpler film with less characters and plot dynamics yet more violence and references to genre touchstones like Mad Max. In other words, it feels a little like something Michod would have made first before moving onto the more ambitious Animal Kingdom. Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he actually started developing this project with Joel Edgerton back in 2007, put it on the shelf to make Animal Kingdom, and afterwards decided on The Rover as a followup for lack of anything else to make.
And in a sense it's an admirable move on Michod's part. Rather than feeling compelled to top Animal Kingdom, he shifts gears entirely and shows he's completely capable of making a bloody, post-apocalyptic road movie. When it premiered at Cannes and had a subsequent release in the summer, the reception was decidedly mixed, and even those who thought well of it saw it as a step down for Michod. On the contrary, I found it to be a bold and impressive move for the director, and if it lacks the power of Animal Kingdom it's more due to the constraints of the genre than Michod's script.
The movie opens with a title card reading 10 Years After the Collapse. Guy Pierce, who plays the protagonist Eric, stops by what's left of an old bar for a drink, and when he glances out the window he sees that his car is being stolen by three men after crashing their own truck. Eric, grim, angry, and taciturn, finds left for dead the brother (Robert Pattinson) of one of the thieves, and together they set off across the barren Australian to find the men and the stolen car.
It would barely be enough story to withhold the film's running time of just under 100 minutes (sans credits) if not for Michod's incredibly assured sense of pacing and tone, as well as a subdued yet fierce performance from Guy Pierce (probably his best performance since 2005's The Proposition, a Western that actually shares some tonal similarities with this movie).
Michod manages to keep the film tense and exciting not because of chases (the only one of which occurs in the film's first ten minutes and barely even registers as one) or intense shootouts (there are a couple, but they're stripped of any real stylization and often Michod chooses to show the actual killings off screen) but by maintaining a sense of movement and dread with the occasional burst of extreme and unexpected violence to keep the viewer aware that in this world no one is safe and anything can happen. His most successful choice however is the way in which he develops Eric's character, presenting him at first as a man who is essentially evil but who gradually reveals himself to be someone devastated by grief and the notion that actions no longer have consequences in a world bereft of meaning. Watch for an important moment about two thirds into the film in which Eric's entire worldview (at least in this post-apocalyptic nightmare) is explained in a few lines of revelatory dialogue that suddenly bring cadence into his world that previously seemed driven by only senseless anger.
With so little story at hand, it would have been easy for Michod to indulge in long scenes of expository dialogue between Pierce and Pattinson (who also, it should be said, goes against type with quite satisfying results), yet he largely avoids this in order to maintain the film's slow yet propulsive, somber yet anxious mood (and when he does allow the characters to converse, the conversation is minimal yet meaningful). This makes both characters enigmatic and tough to relate to, yet it ultimately works wonders for a story that's about what it's like when things are so ravaged that meaning can no longer be applied to actions.