It felt like the summer needed to take a breather. Between the superhero movies and animated sequels and giant monsters, we needed a week off from visual effects, especially with the looming cloud that is a fourth Transformers movie on the horizon. This made it a very strange summer weekend at the movies. Nothing major opened – only a by-the-book comedy sequel and a classy but cliché-ridden band backstory.
It’s a perfect opportunity to highlight a smaller film, in this case a post-apocalyptic vengeance tale out of Australia called The Rover. It stars Guy Pearce, a veteran of these kinds of bloody art films, and Robert Pattinson, of Twilight infamy.
Its story is simple. A global collapse 10 years ago has left Australia a third-world country. Three bandits argue about leaving one’s younger brother behind, and crash their truck. They take a car belonging to Eric (Pearce), who finds that younger brother, Rey (Pattinson), and uses him to track down the car.
Why is Eric so intent on getting his car back? He’s left with the bandits’ better, faster truck. It’s at the core of the story, but for a long time, it becomes secondary to Eric and Rey’s journey. In an American film, the two would be good guys. They’d start at each others’ throats but through witty banter and close calls they’d grudgingly learn to work together. Not so in The Rover.
Eric makes it clear early: the two are not friends. The more we learn about Eric, the more we realize he’s got very little soul left. He’s vicious and remorseless, and would sooner kill than be cornered into a conversation. Rey is slow, perhaps even mentally handicapped. In him, we see an impressionable boy who lacks the tools for this world. Rey’s growing loyalty to Eric breeds in the boy a growing need to commit violence. Drawing a parallel between Rey and the Elliot Rodgers and Dylan Klebolds of the world isn’t difficult – these aren’t murderers created by music or movies, they’re murderers created through misguided loyalty to someone who teaches them hate.
Australian movies have a habit for removing the usual gloss of Hollywood filmmaking. There’s far less violence in The Rover than in a single action scene of any of this summer’s blockbusters, but when it does happen, that violence is raw, quick, and brutal. Characters don’t get slow-motion death scenes with an orchestral crescendo; they get left in the dust with the buzzards. There’s eloquence in its hideousness, though. When there’s no room for escapism, the viewer is confronted by what a film has to say, and The Rover traps you in a corner.
Director David Michod and cinematographer Natasha Braier create a bleak and broken landscape – even the sky is sand colored. Yet the film always stays visually arresting. Scenes start at odd angles to where they’ll take the story; they don’t telegraph moments beforehand.
Pearce’s performance is stunning. At one point, he thinks it’s all over for himself, that he’s going to jail for the rest of his life. He speaks with the knowledge that this is long overdue. It’s almost a relief to be caught. It’s a chilling moment, watching something so dead and soulless speak. Yet there are other times when the shreds of Eric’s remaining humanity peek through, brief moments when his eyes come to life just as quickly gone.
None of this should overshadow Pattinson. I’ve never held the Twilight franchise against any of its actors. (If you paid me a hundred million dollars to stare off-camera and look pained, I’d be there early every day.) But Pattinson is a revelation in The Rover, the best performance of the year so far. Rey is a character who could easily go off-the-rails into lampooning territory, but he never does. You can see him processing the world around himself, violence becoming easier, changing from a danger to a solution.
And then there’s the ending – unexpected, taut, graceful, tender. It changes everything that’s come before. “The Rover” asks challenging questions without offering answers. It’s a cynical reflection of all the hope we have in our cinema today. That hope – costumed heroes saving the world – is important to cling to. It’s crucial, but so are films like The Rover. They’re a worst case scenario – what if that hope doesn’t work out? A necessary question, though not one many viewers may wish to face.
The Rover is rated R for language and violence.