Searching for Home in The Rover
Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson Navigate a Wasteland in David MichÔd's New Film
The film’s soul comes in the form of Robert Pattinson’s Rey, a half-wit criminal wounded in an unseen gunfight and left for dead by his older brother and gang, who together compose the only family he has left. Like Eric, Rey resembles a corpse in his introductory scene. Prostrate on a dusty asphalt road, bleeding out, he stares at the body of a soldier shot through the neck. Rey’s youth and mental deficiency imbue his character with an innocence that contrasts starkly with Eric’s grizzled experience. We get the sense this is Rey’s first intimate encounter with death.
One of more spectacular moments in The Rover arrives early on: a truck silently topples past the window of a roadside cantina where Eric has stopped to drink, the sound of the accident drowned out by the cantina’s blaring music. Included among the passengers of the wrecked vehicle is Rey’s brother, Henry (Scoot McNairy), along with fellow gang members Caleb (Tawanda Manyomo) and Archie (David Field). Before Eric can prevent them, these three armed, desperate, but not overly menacing men abscond with his Peugeot. Shortly thereafter—by sheer willpower alone, it would seem—Eric is able to catch up to them in the vehicle they abandoned to steal his. Although their vehicle appears, remarkably, to be in perfect working order, they refuse to return Eric’s, knocking him unconscious with the butt of a shotgun before speeding off.
Why the gang doesn’t take both vehicles is a mystery. Their preference for Eric’s Peugeot over their truck, though, seems primarily the result of Eric’s determination to get the Peugeot back. In this world where valuation services like Kelly Blue Book no longer exist, one can only gauge the value of an object by its importance to its owner. And nothing is more important to Eric than his vehicle—or so it would seem.
Eric’s hunt leads him to a shadowy brothel along the highway, where he is offered the services of a teenage boy—by the boy’s grandmother, no less. There is a noticeable deficit of women in the film (it certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test), and those present are largely desexualized. Though an element not entirely excusable, the film sports a male-centric cast for a reason: to externalize Eric’s repressed memories of his deceased wife, and to express the pervasive hopelessness of this future dystopia. The Rover is expressionistic filmmaking: the inner landscape projected onto the outer.
he predominantly male cast also hints at what, in the film, has become of Australia. Post-Collapse, the country seems to have turned into a mining colony where men from around the globe—but particularly from America and China—come to work. The film frequently focuses on characters attempting to make sense of their ramshackle existence by upholding laws and systems dissolved in the Collapse, from a pair of shop owners who require Eric to purchase something—anything—before they will divulge the whereabouts of the nearest doctor, to the hardened doctor herself, who surprises Eric by repairing Rey’s gunshot wound pro bono, to the gang Rey and his brother joined perhaps as much for reasons of survival as for camaraderie. What do we value and why, the film seems to ask.
Michôd has one other film to his name, 2012’s Animal Kingdom, a bleak family crime drama which shares The Rover’s themes of filial betrayal and institutional corruption. Guy Pearce also stars in Animal Kingdom—his character, Detective Leckie, is the film’s primary ray of hope, one of the few Melbourne police officers in the story who doesn’t abuse power for personal gain. He offers an out to the film’s protagonist, Joshua ‘J’ Cody (played with numb remove by James Frecheville), after the seventeen-year-old is thrust into a family of criminals presided over by the terrifying, protective, and possibly incestuous Grandma Smurf (a terrific Jacki Weaver). Another of the film’s supporting players is Joel Edgerton, who helped Michôd pen the script for his latest effort.
The Rover chronicles an odyssey of sorts: the destination of Eric and Rey’s quest is literally and metaphorically home. But of course there are setbacks. Midway through the film, while Rey relieves himself under cover of brush, Eric is caught sleeping and captured by patrolling troops—troops whose presence is continually felt during the film, but whose purpose and utility are never made entirely clear. More ambiguous are the reasons behind the economic collapse and the extent of its damage, though clues are offered intermittently—a passing train displays Chinese characters on its carriages; American currency remains legitimate while Australian has fallen out of favor. “Whatever you think is over for me has been over a long time,” Eric assures the sergeant who interrogates him at the base where he is taken. As the scene develops, their exchange veers into the existential, Eric’s history and the reason behind his nihilistic outlook coming clearly into focus.
In what is perhaps the most compelling shot in the film, Eric stands before the remains of an open-pit mine, his back to the camera, his perspective aligned with Michôd's. Separating him from the gaping cavity is a chain-link fence. Fences are a recurrent visual motif in the film, emphasizing how both Eric and Rey are, in their own way, prisoners—one the hostage of the other, who is himself imprisoned by guilt. We don’t see Eric’s face in the shot, but his reaction is evoked visually, through the pallor of the landscape. If the ecological aspects of The Rover were not already apparent, they are brought to the fore here. Eric is looking not only at the hollowed-out core of himself, but of his race. Humanity, as depicted in the film, is a collection of selfish, myopic individuals who feed on the earth like parasites, prizing their own survival above all else, even if surviving means existing in a wasteland.
Crosses feature prominently in Rey’s scenes, especially those early in the film. When he is first introduced, the shadow of a telephone pole in the shape of a cross appears on the road beside him, identifying him as a kind of imperfect Christ-figure—the shadow of a savior. In the hours leading up to his confrontation with his brother, surrounded by the impenetrable dark of an Outback night, his face illuminated by the truck’s inner lights, Rey sings—or rather, mumbles—along with Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” It is an instance of reprieve for both the character and the audience, a momentary calm before the storm. Given that Pattinson's good looks are all but covered up by the layers of dirt he donned for the role, there is a fair amount of irony to hearing Rey mutter, “Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful.” Generally this kind of meta humor will draw me out of a film, but it didn’t here, because Hilson’s song also evokes a time before the Collapse, a time as foreign to Rey as it is attractive, and as dissonant to the present as “Pretty Girl Rock” is to the rest of the tracks on Anthony Partos’s ominous score.
Tension ratchets up in the film’s final act. At the gang’s hideout, a confrontation turns into a grueling standoff, which results in bloodshed, which results in more bloodshed—which results in even more. Two funerals follow. For the first, Michôd shoots Eric as he did before the mine—that is, with his back to the camera, his devastation evident by virtue of the surrounding imagery. The second reveals that Eric’s hunt for the car was actually a hunt for its contents, and that the sole reason he has continued living up to this point has been to preserve a memory. When Eric stabs his shovel into the Outback’s friable soil, the screen goes black. Has he finally overcome the burden of his sordid past, or is he relinquishing all hope for a brighter tomorrow? Michôd lets the audience decide.
Nicholas Pierce is a writer and critic. In the fall issue, he wrote about Robert Redford in "All is Lost."