Most post-apocalyptic vengeance stories like The Rover at least flirt with nihilism. But this is normally just window-dressing there to throw a little grit under the wheels of something all too familiar. What makes David Michod’s hot, percussive, jolting film stand out from the after-the-fall pack is its realization of just how far its protagonists have fallen, even compared to the tattered remnants of civilization around them.
Set “ten years after the collapse” in a swath of the Australian outback so raw, flat, and bleached of color that it barely seems of this Earth, Michod’s story starts with a man and his car and a mystery. Eric (Guy Pearce) stops for a drink at a bar, only to have his car swiped by three hoods who just crashed their truck fleeing a shootout where they left one of their number’s brother behind. Even though they’re armed and he isn’t, Eric hops into their banged-up but still running truck and gives chase.
The mystery begins after Eric confronts the men and comes to later with a headache and no car, only to instantly resume his pursuit. He still has the truck, so why is the car so important? Storming into one raggedy establishment after another, he demands information about his car. There’s a steely, bloody-minded determination to Eric’s pursuit typical of the revenge genre, especially after he picks up Rey (Robert Pattinson), the wounded, simple-minded brother left behind by the crooks he’s chasing. But by seemingly depriving us of any rationale for his frantic odyssey (nobody stole from him or killed his family) Michod has cleaved off that kind of story’s primal drive. All of this deprives Eric of even the base drive of Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank or late-period Liam Neeson roles, where the hero might do ugly things but they’re either in pursuit of justice or at least committed against those who seem to deserve it.
Eric is no hero. In short order, he steals and commits cold-blooded murder. Michod feints here and there with the possibility that Eric could in fact be more of a monster than the men he’s after. Some of the first words we hear are one of them shouting, “We’ve killed people!” Eric feels no such compunction, and soon has Rey—played by Pattinson with a deftly twitchy kind of gracefulness that plays neatly against Pearce’s raw red ferocity—descending to his level.
Early on, Eric threatens the madam (Gillian Jones) of a shabby bordello whose pin-perfect room and afternoon-tea coolness provide this savage film’s sole glimpse of becalmed civilization.”What a thing,” she says in wonderment when finding out that he just wants his car back. “To get that worked up about in this day and age.” It’s a dreamy line, delivered with just the right dash of wistfulness to communicate all one needs to know about this collapsed world. Michod picks out just the occasional detail instead of providing big sheets of exposition about how everything fell apart. But those details are all the right ones, from the characters’ realistically begrimed appearance (no Road Warrior mohawks) to the Chinese pop music blaring everywhere and that endless-seeming train stamped with Chinese writing and festooned with mercenaries.
The Rover is skillfully put together with a jarring score, crisp cinematography, and a clutch of resonant performances. But although the film has a confident Kathryn Bigelow snap, it has a hard time amounting to the sum of its parts. Michod seemed on sturdier ground with his debut, the hothouse family crime saga Animal Kingdom. At looser ends in this film’s wide-open spaces, he continually seems to evoke other sources, from Cormac McCarthy’s literate savagery to any number of Westerns, particularly John Hillcoat’s phenomenally bloody Guy Pearce-starrer The Proposition. Michod is comfortable enough with the film’s moral darkness to face it head-on, but not yet enough a true storyteller to give that darkness the proper depth.