2 ½ out of 5 Stars
“Not everything needs to be about something,” says Rey (Robert Pattinson). This inadvertent wisdom would’ve made a terrific tag line for David Michôd’s bleak futuristic road movie “The Rover”, which, at the very least, lives up to its name. While the film is certainly not about nothing, you might find yourself straining to make greater meaning of the whole ordeal. Don’t try too hard.
Like last year’s “Out of the Furnace”, it’s all about watching the actors act. This is a dramatic departure from the fluffier roles we’re used to seeing Pattinson in like the “Twilight” saga and “Water for Elephants”, and will certainly help people erase the godawful “Cosmopolis” from their memories. Rey is a confused, weak-willed young man who finds himself in the company of a violent, vengeful drifter named Eric (Guy Pearce) who has no qualms about putting a bullet in someone’s head.
Pearce’s role is much less of a stretch if you’ve seen him in similarly dark films like “Ravenous” and “The Road”, though not necessarily diminished by comparison. The relationship between Eric and Rey is strangely like that of George and Lennie in “Of Mice and Men” if George were a complete sociopath.
Michôd has a penchant for the deeply grim, as he ably demonstrated in 2010’s crime drama “Animal Kingdom” (also starring Pearce), but this dystopian vision is almost too austere to be unsettling, too meandering to be engaging, and aside from Pattinson, gives us precious little to sympathize with. And even he grows pretty tiresome after a while.
Written by Michôd (from a story by Michôd and “Animal Kingdom” co-star Joel Edgerton, whose brother Nash appears briefly in the film), “The Rover” takes place in the Australian Outback ten years after a complete economic implosion. Gasoline and food are sparse, and the U.S. dollar is the only acceptable currency. Martial law has been implemented. It’s like the Wild West if Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott decided to make another movie together.
Pearce’s Eric is a quiet loner whose patchy hair, deep-set eyes and multitude of scars suggest that he’s been to hell and back several times. He’s minding his own business at a roadside watering hole when his car gets stolen by three armed thugs after their truck is wrecked during a getaway. Quickly in pursuit, Eric comes across a wounded Rey, who is the younger brother of one of the robbers (Scoot McNairy, who continues to grow on me). After getting patched up by a countryside doctor (Susan Prior), a traumatized Rey, believing that he was left for dead, is easily persuaded to tell Eric where his brother is headed, and even agrees to help him get his car back.
We witness Eric’s propensity for violence early on, as he shoots a man point-blank while purchasing a pistol and then dispatches the man’s friends with a long-range rifle when they come looking for revenge. By the time we learn a little about his past, it’s hardly shocking. So what’s in the car that’s worth all this bloodshed? That’s the dangling carrot that gets us through the journey (it’s hard not to recall 2010’s “The Book of Eli” here). And I have to admit, there’s a bitter-sweet satisfaction in the answer.
If “The Rover” intermittently matches the intensity of “Animal Kingdom”, it’s only in contrast to the long stretches of down time that make up the majority of its 102-minute running time. Technically well-made, certainly, a few surprises, sure, but if not for some fantastic cinematography by Natasha Braier (“Chinese Puzzle”) and score by Antony Partos, the film would have very little personality to speak of. It’s too cryptic for its own good. Guy Pearce is one of those actors who is so intense and dedicated to his characters that he could practically get by on his facial expressions, but in the case of Eric, it just begins to feel like he’s giving the audience the silent treatment.