David Michôd's follow-up to Animal Kingdom is another Australian crime film, this time set ten years after a global financial collapse. But while this stark movie is both a haunting Western and a frank look a first-world country in decline, it will also hit you over the head with how mean and cheap life is.
Eric (Guy Pearce) is a man with no purpose, no attachments, and no significant possessions save his car. But when his car is stolen by a group of criminals fleeing a heist, Eric becomes fueled by a single-minded drive to recover his car, and will resort to any sort of violence to get it back. Along the way, he acquires an unwitting accomplice in Rey (Robert Pattinson), a mentally challenged man as quick to form attachments as Eric is resolute in his loner status. Their journey to recover Eric's car takes them on a tour through the remnants of civilization.
This may be a road movie through post-collapse Australia, but you shouldn't mistake The Rover for Mad Max. There is nothing sexy or exciting about this world, just tantalizing scraps of narrative in the background, in an opium den, at the faded edges of a defunct circus, in a makeshift clinic, in a motel where people scrape by amidst the random and pointless violence around them. The film is covered in a thick layer of road dust, and as we walk into canned goods shops or listen to characters talk about American dollars versus Australian currency, it's hard not to feel that this is what the global financial collapse will truly look like.
In a different movie, we might have followed the people still looking for some purpose in their lives—perhaps we'd follow the crew of criminals who come with a built-in dynamic and a goal. But Michôd is here to kill your narrative conventions with a ruthlessness that matches Eric's own.
In a way, The Rover is sort of a perversion of a typical Western. In the beginning, Michôd presents us with a brutal action film, one filled with tense confrontations and even a little gunslinging. But this isn't a pioneer country where people are building something fresh and new ahead of law and order; this is a country that people are abandoning in droves, leaving the poorest and meanest to survive as best they can. And instead of a romantic hero, we have Eric, whose motives mystify the audience for most of the film. Why is this man, who finds life so meaningless, so obsessed with recovering his car?
But once Pattinson's Rey enters the picture, the film takes on a different, moodier tone. For all of Eric's refusal to let the audience into his head, Pearce is a magnetic force on the screen and Pattinson builds a heartbreaking character in his egoless performance as a man trying to connect to Eric as desperately as the audience is. There are some points where Michôd perhaps relies too much on his actors to carry the film, but it's not without reason. These are damaged men who belong to this faded world.
The Rover is a difficult film to recommend. The ending is deliberately unsatisfying—thwarting our desires for any sort of meaning in the film—and it left me in a nasty mood for two days afterward. But the way Michôd plays with narrative structure is fascinating in and of itself, not just for the choices he made, but the choices he didn't make. And while the collapsing world of The Rover may not be one we like, it leaves the viewer with the unnerving sense that this is what the worst version of the future really looks like.