Film Review – The Rover
Amidst the sun drenched landscape, between ringing shots of gunfire and desperate attempts for survival, a man sits in a small room lined with cages full of dogs. His name is Eric (Guy Pearce). He sits staring at the cages. Nothing is said, and no action is taken. It is a moment of reflection that while appearing halfway through director David Michôd’s latest movie The Rover, gives us no indication why Eric would do such a thing. The moment is broken when the dogs’ caretaker enters the room and explains the dogs are in there to keep them from becoming other people’s food. While seemingly dismissive of a moment, it comes to symbolize everything this violent post-apocalypse tale of possession represents, loyalty.
After opening on a gun battle involving a group of travelers, their car speeds away along the barren stretch of roads lining the Australian outback. It’s intense and it’s sparse. Very little dialog is exchanged and nothing gives away why this is occurring. As the shootout and car escape transpire the movie cuts to Eric, sitting alone at a roadside bar. Needing to switch cars, the group of escapees decides to steal a car parked outside the bar. This turns out to be Eric’s car, and the moment is what sets everything else into motion. Eric hears his car being stolen and without hesitation follows in pursuit in the car the escapees left behind. It’s an impressive moment of chutzpah as Eric doggedly pursues his car even in the face of guns being brandished.
Eric clearly has a sense of loyalty towards his car. His obsession with its retrieval is what pushes everything that follows, and the fact we’re kept from the reason for that loyalty is what makes the film’s payoff an effective point about the human condition. Along Eric’s quest to get back his car he comes across a member of the escaping party who’s been left behind for dead, Rey, played by an out-of-type Robert Pattinson. Rey is suffering from a bullet wound and a desire to catch back up with the brother who left him behind. Eric sees Rey as his ticket to finding his car.
Like all road movies, there’s always a point of destination that the trip and movie lead us to climax at. However, it’s the rare road movie that predicates the destination through a self-propelling desire. Often times the destination, and climax, are framed by desires of resolution that are beyond the character’s control. Eric’s desire to reach his car is purely based on a personal drive for a sense of loyalty. At any given time Eric could abandon his quest for his car and go about his life. Eric even comes to posses another car with which he uses to track down his own car. This indicates Eric’s personally fueled quest as being his own, not guided by forces outside his will.
Michôd paints the apocalypse with a gritty, washed out realism that in comparison makes the Mad Max films something of a comic book hyperbole. In fact there’s a lot thematically to compare to the Australian genre-setting Mad Max, but it’s where the differences lie that this becomes such a specific commentary and not just a revenge yarn. In fact, the lack of revenge as motivation provides a refreshing take on a meditation on violence and humanity. Eric’s quest is one that echoes an importance to a now lost connection. With the world crumbling in the aftermath of the apocalypse, there’s an unsteady sense of trust and connection that permeates every human interaction. Because of that tenuous place that now exists between persons the sense to be what humanity once was is personified in the need for loyalty.
Eric remains loyal to his car, while Rey remains loyal to the brother who abandoned him. Along their journey together to reach Rey’s brother and Eric’s car they encounter people who have placed loyalty in their immediate surroundings, while being cautious of and doubting the loyalty of everyone they now encounter. It is through the loss of loyalty then that violence is presented as such an easy means to resort to. If you can’t trust someone, and they can’t provide you with anything to further your survival, then their continued survival threatens yours. It’s a hardline philosophy that is offset by a deeply, visibly broken spirit tucked away behind Eric’s scraggly beard and botched haircut.
Rey and Eric start off their relationship in a dubious exchange of needs. Both require reaching the same person for different reasons, but also require a similar treatment of loyalty to accomplish reaching that person. Michôd and co-writer, actor Joel Edgerton, approach the storytelling with a stripped down, bare MacGuffin aesthetics. It’s a simple linear shot from the bar to Eric’s car, which is the only plot device running the show. But despite its simplistic design, there’s an unexpected weight that accompanies the concepts being introduced that leaves for a resonance beyond the final, revealing shot. Between Pearce’s unwavering intensity and Pattinson unnerving caginess, there’s enough great acting here to draw the scenes between intense violence down from what could be a slog to a welcomed reprieve. With a rather elegant presentation of gun play as a dreaded inevitability, each shot that rings out is neither wasted, nor viscerally pleasurable like the thrill of so many summer action films. And yet there’s an excitement to the intensity, that coupled with the thematic emotional connection of loyalty provides for a surprisingly different summer movie experience.