The Rover – Film Review – 2014
When one has nothing left make ceremonies out of air and breathe upon them.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Dark. Violent. Uncompromising.
Those three words have been used to no end to describe films. So much so is their usage, that when a film comes along that truly fulfills the promise of said words. They are not enough to prepare a viewer for the journey one will go on. The dark, violent and uncompromising film in question is Writer/Director David Michod’s The Rover. Part Biblical Kane and Abel-esque fable, part Of Mice and Men at the end of civilization, part journey into the Heart of Darkness; The Rover is the very best of what cinema can bring to genre storytelling.
The Rover is a film with maturity and sense of world weariness that would not work well for those ill-suited for serious films. The Rover is the type of film that shows the ugly side of violence. How quickly it can erupt in a moments notice. Many films sexualize guns and and their destruction. The film is keenly aware of this and shows just how dangerous these weapons are. The notions at play in the film are not those you would find in something like The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2). The film is more akeen to The Searchers or Apocalypse Now than a film designed to thrill. Like those films, this is a character study of a man who’s reflection is something uglier than we are used to in cinema.
Silence and the spaces between what is said is becoming a rarefied area of film making. So much that it will take one a moment or many moments to adjust to the lullaby that The Rover sings. It sings most of its beautiful lullaby in the key of silence. Once one allows themselves to settle into the films rhythm, the journey that Michod and Co. take you on, is an unforgettable one. The film is not pretentious nor overly arty, there is a very clear and clean linear way the story is told. Though the narrative is quite simple, the emotions and subtext that can be alluded to are highly complex. This is a film that challenges you and asks you to work a little more than one may be used to. It circles the morally gray area that we have become accustomed our TV series to have. More than anything The Rover is a thrilling example of how high the bar can be set in genre film making and does not have to be relegated to the Blockbuster Ghetto it has been for so long.
The Rover opens with a title card that reads:
This story takes place ten years after the collapse.
From this moment as we fade into the barren landscape of the Australian Outback. Michod creates a bleak crystalline backdrop. John Ford would have been right at home in the beautiful but stark landscape that Michod places us and actor Guy Pearce into. Much of The Rover is played on star Guy Pearce’s amazing visage. Michod plays our first moment with the star in an unforgiving close up. It allows us to see Pearce’s unnamed man as he is lost in thought. So much so flies begin to surround his face. He neither flinches nor moves away. The moment that Michod decides to bring us into on this man’s life is a bit of a mystery. We do not nor are we implicitly told where the man is and what sort of grasp he has on his life. Over the course of the events of the film we see just that.
Pearce has always specialized in playing desperate men too tightly wound for their own good (see: LA Confidential, Memento, Ravenous). Here, Michod has given Pearce an Ahab style role that allows him to play the madness of a lonely man on a journey that at it’s core is futile. Pearce is electric here, summoning all the anger and rage of a man who is without any sort of connection or tether in life. There is a moment where Pearce confronts two men, Pearce is an animal just pushing beyond into something primal. Pearce’s man with no name, no longer cares for decorum of social etiquette. As we move further into the film and we begin to see the cracks. As a performer Pearce never has moved away from the ugliest parts of human nature. One wishes that Pearce had been born in the 1970s, they would have whispered his name in the same sort of hushed tones as they did with Pacino, DeNiro, Duvall and Brando. Michod and Pearce never gives us an easy, A-B-C connect the dots, through line. There is a feral aspect to the performance that most actors could never get to, or a director would allow one to get to. Pearce with his appearance and physicality make his nameless drifter neither a hero or a badass. The drifter is a wounded rabid animal. An animal that’s been poked an prodded for too long and no affection from anyone or anything for sometime. It is one of the more searing and devastating performances in recent memory on par with the visceral work done by Jaoquin Pheonix in the equally brilliant and stunning The Master.
Many would love to push Robert Pattinson into a corner and relegate him to the lover/pretty boy roles that a lesser actor would have done after The Twilight Series (see: Taylor Launder). Pattinson seems to be making a very clear message with his performance in The Rover, he’s come to play. There is a reason that Michod cast Pattinson as the co-lead in this film. Though some would argue it is the financing of said project depended on it (it probably, partially did), I would say it is more than that. Michod saw something in Pattinson. An alley and confidant in the same manner that Pearce was. Pattinson is a revelation as Rey. All detractors can no longer considered the actor, “that guy from the Twilight movies”. There isn’t an ounce of vanity in his performance. What could have been a performance that devolved into a one note joke, is anything but. There’s a sense of confusion and anger that Pattison imbues in Rey that is at once brilliant and subtle choice. The moments that Pearce and Pattinson share (most of the film is the two) that other actors would be swallowed whole. Pattinson proves to be an equally nimble performer as his seasoned co-star. One hopes that Pattison moves in this direction and judging by the directors he has worked with post-Twilight (e.g. David Cronenberg), even if the results are mixed (see: Cosmopolis) his performances are interesting (again see: Cosmopolis).
Most films that build a world will.
There is no room for the unexplained through exposition. The film landscape now dictates we can no longer have a Watermelon in a Vice Grip go unexplained. We must now know exactly what it’s there for and five films later will save all of our main characters from certain doom. The explained makes any film more disposable. The unexplained allows for a film to last longer than the shelf life of theatrical/home video/three years later utterly forgotten. Films currently do not allow for unanswered questions, for a viewer to “fill in the gaps”. I’m reminded of one of my favorite films Raiders of the Lost Ark which is filled with the unexplained dialog that alludes to the life of Dr. Henry Jones Jr. Even now twenty years later, people are discussing the meanings of specific lines of dialog (“I was a child. I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it!” is one of the most debatable lines in that film and what specifically happened between Marion and Indy). Much of The Rover allows you to take in the world and see the unexplained visuals, hear the unexplained and forces you to figure it out for yourself. Much of the pleasure of this film will grow with repeated viewings to dissect exactly what has occurred in this world to get to the point it is a decade after “The Collapse”.
Working from a story written by Michod and Joel Edgerton (yes, of the Edgerton brothers) and a script written by Michod the support cast and crew all to excellent work. Composer Anthony Partos creates not just a score but a thematic sound scape that takes you into the minds of the Drifter wither you want to go there or not. The score is both subtle and jarring, knowing when to push and pull back. Production Designer Josephine Ford and Cinematographer Natasha Braier’s work hand in hand giving us that stark living nightmare, everything is broken down or in the process of literally deteriorating in front of us. It must have been a literal hell (or at least temperatures approximating hell) for Ford. Most if not all sets were on location in the Outback in excess of 120 degree weather. Ford is able to keep these amazing sets kept in this rusted/wasted away nature of the visual palette. Cinematographer Braier working with 35mm and true Anamorphic lenses at the request of Michod (which probably was not difficult to convince him), proves to be one of the biggest finds of the film. There is a rotted beauty to everything in the film. The film never shies away from the harsher light of the desert and normally drab halogens, Braier is able to take these harsh lighting conditions and turn in visuals that are on par with anything that a Roger Deakins or Matthew Libatique put on screen. Remember Natasha Braier as she may have just entered the realm of truly great visual cinematographers.
Michod building on the reputation for uncompromising and impressive films. The Rover is the sort of bleak searing story that along with The Searchers and Apocalypse Now has the power to draw you into the madness of a fruitless endeavor. A fruitless endeavor that Michod and Co. are smart enough never to answer. Like any great group of filmmakers pose the question rather than pose and answer said question. Was it worth the cost that our Drifter had paid? As a film viewer the answer is a resounding YES. In a year where it appears to be an embarrassment of riches with genre material and specifically science fiction, The Rover, stands head and foot above the rest.