By Randy Myers
San Jose Mercury News
The futuristic mind-messer The Rover cements director-writer David Michod's reputation as one of our most daring new filmmakers.
The celebrated Australian's follow-up to Animal Kingdom, his brilliant and shocking 2010 gangster family drama, is meaty, ambitious -- and pitch-black bleak. While it won't blow you out of your seat with the velocity that Kingdom did, it's hard to shrug off even days afterward.
Michod sets his ambitious post-apocalyptic tale in a dust-choked Australia that has dramatically deteriorated 10 years into an international economic collapse. Most survivors have regressed into a Wild West kind of existence, hording guns as they try to protect the scant property they can claim as their own. An overall moral rot festers even in a character with the cuddly name of Grandma who, like others, is trying to stay on top of the food chain.
Along with their guns, characters are armed with horrifying back stories that Michod reveals methodically, keeping the audience uncertain about who is good and who is bad. In such desperate times, heroes and goodness don't seem to exist anymore, although decency does appear at one point in the form of a helpful doctor (Susan Prior).
Against the backdrop of this purposefully elusive narrative, The Rover's two main protagonists, Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, inhabit their roles with unwavering conviction. Pearce, always a versatile actor, is terrifyingly intense as Eric, a survivor seething with rage and contempt for society. The demanding role is a clever tribute to Clint Eastwood's enigmatic Man With No Name from the classic Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy of Westerns, one of several film references. It offers Pearce the chance to give one of his most incidenary performances -- which is saying a lot. But what's made him so angry is revealed late in the story. To fully understand his actions and Michod's motivations, you'll need to see the film a second time.
Pearce's Eric is taciturn and fierce as he goes on a mission to retrieve his car which has been stolen by three gangsters, one of whom is the brother of the easily manipulated Rey (Pattinson). Rey, who has been abandoned at the scene of a gunfight, holds the key (if not literally) to Eric retrieving his car. As he keeps apace of Pearce's immersive acting style, it's clear Pattinson's capable of much more than what was asked of him in the Twilight series. He downplays his pretty-boy image and takes command of the role with the authority of a stage veteran. His Rey is a vulnerable boy-man in a world where innocence will get squashed like a bug.
The Rover is full of violent, unpleasant acts, some on camera, others off, and a few we get a glimpse of through the characters' sparse conversations. The despairing and withering atmosphere -- reminiscent of the Mad Max movies -- is hauntingly evoked by Michod, director of photography Natasha Braier and production designer Jo Ford. They make this future seem possible, while the strategically meted out music by Antony Partos punctuates it with exclamation points whenever warranted.
The Rover never over-explains -- you might even say even begins to explain -- what led up to this financial catastrophe. The film's production notes shed much more light on its dark reality. The scarcity of expository background took me a few minutes to adjust to. But part of The Rover's mission is to keep us off-kilter; making us question and seek out answers about what's happened before.
Like the best dystopian sci-fi, it urges us to keep more watchful eye to what's happening throughout the globe right now.
Rated R for language and some bloody violence.