With a post-apocalyptic Outback setting coupled with an emphasis on brutal revenge and the rapid disappearance of morality – not to mention the open roads, dusty settlements, wheezing vehicles and value placed on food / water / petrol / ammunition – David Michôd’s sophomore effort obviously brings to mind George Miller’s Mad Max. Not the mega-carnage of this year’s Fury Road, I hasten to add, but the leaner, cheaper, nastier Mad Max of 1979: The Rover has a similar line in intriguing odd-bods, innocent-looking waifs and criminal gang members, while the simplicity of its story shares the earlier film’s debt to exploitation cinema. There are elements here seen many times before in spaghetti westerns, Roger Corman’s biker gang movies of the 1960s, the American carsploitation flicks of the 1970s and, naturally, the Outback-set Ozploitation flicks of the 1980s, all brought up-to-date by a director with a burgeoning reputation and a cast containing a few notable names-du-jour.
Little is given away by Michôd with regard to the exact time or place in which his story unfolds, though presumably we’re not too far in the distant future. Something referred to as ‘the collapse’ occurred ten years earlier, according to a title card, though Michôd refrains from explaining what exactly happened. The word ‘collapse’ obviously suggests an economic disaster rather than an environmental issue or a world war, and tellingly characters prefer to be paid in American dollars rather than Australian, but The Rover is short on detail and how ‘the collapse’ has affected other parts of the world is unclear. All we find out is that people still live in the Outback, some have travelled from afar to work in the mines, while state security is seemingly within the remit of the Army, who are occasionally seen patrolling in Humvees in lieu of a police force. Being armed looks to be a necessity rather than a choice: other men with guns, who could be mercenaries, guard freight trains as they hurtle across the flat land.
The director sets his story up superbly with a gripping opening 25 minutes, in which Guy Pearce’s Eric – the nearest thing this film has to a Max Rockatansky – has his car stolen by a criminal gang who are themselves making a getaway from a botched robbery. We see the aftermath of their initial crime, and discover that the brother of one of the gang members, Rey (Robert Pattinson), has been shot in the gut and left for dead. Further down the road Eric sets off in pursuit of his own car using a truck that has been discarded by the gang, chasing down the thieves for a tense confrontation. Later he has to rely on scraps of information from others as to their whereabouts, but eventually Eric’s path crosses with that of Rey, who is captured and forced to reveal the gang’s whereabouts.
The first act is further enhanced by the (understandably guarded) characters Eric comes into contact with: Gillian Jones’ creepy opium den proprietor makes the strongest impression, but we also meet assorted members of a travelling circus, jumpy, shotgun-wielding shopkeepers and Susan Prior’s kind-hearted doctor. The sense of strangeness is heightened by Antony Partos’ original soundtrack and the presence of skronky post-rock outfits like Tortoise. Sadly the film tails off after its thrilling opening, and the story becomes more concerned with the trust that develops between Rey and Eric, but it’s hard to sustain such tension across a full feature (and that’s not to say the rest of the film is poor, either, though it is underwhelming by comparison). The occasional images intrigues – shots of figures crucified on roadside electricity pylons, for example – but the incidents that occur on Rey and Eric’s journey lack the impact of the drama at the beginning of the film, and the punctuative scenes of the pair driving become wearing. By the end the occasional surprise, such as the use of Keri Hilson’s Pretty Girl Rock, is more than welcome.
Where Mel Gibson’s eyes were wide and wild, suggesting the ‘madness’ in Max wasn’t simply to do with pure rage, Pearce has a fixed, piercing stare, present throughout. At times he makes it look as if the character no longer cares whether he lives or dies, but something is driving him on nevertheless: key details about his past are revealed but his motivation isn’t fully understood until the deadpan final scene. Way before that, however, Eric is revealed to be ruthlessly brutal, and typical of road movie protagonists he has that kind of steely determination which means nothing will stop him from getting from A to the inevitable showdown at B.
Pearce impresses yet again, though Pattinson seems to be trying a little too hard, filling each scene with a series of tics, head movements and sideways glances that overplays Rey’s nervousness. That said, taking into account this performance and his two David Cronenberg collaborations to date, there’s enough evidence to suggest that the man who played Edward Cullen could turn into a fine actor yet. As for Michôd, this doesn’t quite hit the heights of his well-received debut Animal Kingdom, which also featured Pearce, but at times it certainly comes close and The Rover‘s status as a confirmed box office flop is both unfortunate and undeserved. Interestingly two of the standout characters in the writer-director’s opening brace of films have been women, operating confidently within worlds that are incredibly violent and otherwise male-centric. A long, successful and hopefully diverse filmmaking career should lie ahead.
Directed by: David Michôd.
Written by: David Michôd. Story by Michôd and Joel Edgerton.
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Gillian Jones, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo, Susan Prior.
Cinematography: Natasha Braier.
Editing: Peter Sciberras.
Music: Antony Partos, Various.
Running Time: 102 minutes.