Australian director and writer David Michod’s second film since his fantastic debut Animal Kingdom, The Rover is altogether a different beast. It’s a slow, considered work with a pace interrupted throughout with sudden flashes of quick, bloody violence. It’s a masterpiece in mood, but offers little else beyond this. Despite this, the atmosphere is electrifying, driven effectively by a brooding, minimalist score of drones and clangs which post-rock fans will particularly appreciate (there’s even a song by Tortoise in there).
At the basic level, The Rover is a road movie. Set in an apocalyptic future after an event only described in a title card as ‘the collapse’, the film revolves around Guy Pearce’s nameless character (the credits call him Eric), a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders – and his face, as signified by his messy grey beard and shock of hair. It’s about as rough-looking as an actor who is essentially a male model can get. After something of his is stolen from him, Eric partners with Rey – played by a thin pale, barely recognisable Robert Pattinson – a half-witted, fragile young man who depends on him after being shot and left for dead. Rey knows where the item may have gone because one of the thieves was his brother.
The two have an uneasy relationship as they travel the depths of the Australian outback, which is beautifully shot – or as beautiful as a post-apocalyptic wasteland can be. Eric needs Rey in order to find what was stolen and Rey needs a figure to guide him. It’s a dangerous, lawless place punctuated by senseless killings and odd characters at every stop on the way. Nothing is really offered to help us understand this world; the camera shows us bodies strung up like Jesus as they drive across the plains, but never tells us why. US dollars are the only currency accepted in many places despite the fact that many still have Australian ones. The military are a common presence, but they don’t appear to be doing anything in particular.
It feels like a landscape ripe for further narrative exploration, but the only story we get is Eric and Rey’s, a journey more of action than thought. Pattinson is terrific as Rey, struggling to make sense of the world around him. Eric explains little, but they gradually start to warm to each other. Their relationship is the only light in what is an overwhelmingly bleak vision. It’s an interesting ride with amazing visuals, but the film’s narrative bones are just too bare for it to be anything more than good, which is a shame considering how fully Animal Kingdom ticked all the boxes and a further shame considering how thrilling the film’s first twenty minutes (including a car chase dripping with understated cool) are.
The Australian desert is a blank canvas and The Rover adds little colour to it. It’s not going to be a film for everyone, with a glacial pace dictated by its immaculately-held opening shot, but for those willing to stick with it, The Rover is intense if not particularly rewarding viewing.