Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson and Scoot McNairy
Running time: 102 minutes
Rated: Rated R for language and bloody violence
Bottomline: A gripping journey through the soul
The most important thing to know about “The Rover” is it’s an earnest, fearless attempt to explore the human soul and motion pictures as an art form.
Director and co-writer David Michod’s image of the world is unrelentingly bleak, but the manner in which he presents the image is as stylistically daring as any movie to hit wide release in months if not years. Whether these grand ambitions result in a quality movie, let alone art, will ultimately be in the eye of the beholder. At the very least, though, “The Rover” merits discussion in those terms.
The story and production design are minimalistic. An opening title card establishes the setting — 10 years after “the collapse.” We know all social institutions have failed and people have been reduced to trying to survive in a violent, anarchic world, but we don’t know anything about how society arrived at this place.
A haggard, gaunt man named Eric (Guy Pearce) travels through this world in a car. While stopping for supplies and a drink, his car is stolen by three men who have just committed a crime.
These outlaws left one of their own behind, a simple-minded young man with an American Southern accent named Rey (Robert Pattinson). Eric and Rey will soon form an uneasy alliance to track down the other three men.
“The Rover” is a work of almost complete nihilism. Human life has become expendable and no one kills more readily than Eric, who is driven only by the inexplicably intense desire to retrieve his car. Only in the final shot do we discover there is more to Eric’s motivations.
Australian cinema has produced a lot of post-apocalyptic road movies over the years. “Mad Max” is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of those movies are purely exploitative or highly political.
“The Rover” certainly shows the influence of those previous movies, but it is more philosophical than political. And the violence is oppressive rather than sensational.
Rural Australia as pictured here is so desolate and empty it seems possible this is not supposed to be a real landscape at all, but rather a psychological projection of a man whose life has been stripped down to its most essential elements. I wouldn’t argue against anyone who interprets this as a metaphorical journey through Eric’s psyche rather than the actual Australian outback.
The score also seems to spring unfiltered from Eric’s disturbed mind. Much of it consists of metallic vibrations and dissonant grinding, all of which are only made musical by composer Antony Partos’ ingenious arrangement.
But occasionally this wailing, postmodern soundtrack is spiked with a melody or complete song contrasting its surroundings. This happens during a significant moment of characterization for Rey.
The dark lyricism, violence and style create an almost unbearable level of tension from the opening shot to the last. Yet even though we are constantly uncomfortable and occasionally appalled, it’s impossible to turn our attention away.
That is the film’s greatest accomplishment: Whatever else we might say about “The Rover,” it manages to be thoroughly enthralling and deeply unsettling.
Pearce is at his glowering and introspective best. Plus, Pattinson transforms himself. He is so unrecognizable and believable he might shed his Edward Cullen persona once and for all.
“The Rover” is far from a perfectly made film. I can’t say upon one viewing whether it offers any profound meaning. So, the question remains whether this gaze into the dark heart of man offers anything revelatory.
However, it does what great cinema should do. It pushes film style in new directions, creates an intense viewing experience and takes up permanent residence in our consciousness.
And while I am unsure about what it all means, I am just as sure I want to see it again to try to answer that question.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.