Sun, sand and sadism: The Rover by David Michôd

Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson star in David Michôd’s distopian thriller The Rover: a film with an uncertain mission at its core, like a post-apocalyptic Dude, Where’s My Car?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Rover (15)
dir: David Michôd

Most actors bring associations from previous roles but Guy Pearce’s baggage is strictly of the carry-on variety. So it’s a minor in-joke to see the man who couldn’t remember anything in Memento starring in The Rover as someone who can’t forget. He plays Eric, who once did a terrible thing and now plods implacably through the outback in khaki shorts, sporting a steel-wool beard. “You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken,” he grunts. “That’s the price you pay for taking it.”

An opening title informs us that we are in Australia a decade after “the collapse”. Like a grubby man caught in a mudslide, Eric finds that his sins have been overtaken by those of the global variety. Currency is devalued. Casual killings are an unremarkable occurrence. Stroll into any roadside shack and you might be offered unspecified goods (“We got tins of stuff”) or a boy to use (“He’s smooth like the inside of your arm”). If, that is, you are fortunate enough not simply to be shot on sight.

All Eric wants is his car, which was stolen by three grizzled outlaws. Not that “grizzled” narrows it down – pretty much every­one here is all scabs and gums and gristle. The thieves crash their own wheels in a sequence that proves the director David Michôd can create spectacle through frugal editing. The sight of the vehicle cartwheeling past the window as Eric drinks obliviously in a deserted bar is a miracle of comic timing. (Michôd can generate the same magic with sound, too. The second moment of genius in The Rover hinges on the incongruous use of “Pretty Girl Rock” by the R’n’B singer Keri Hilson.) The staging of the crash is important also in revealing a salty wit. It’s helpful to know that there will be laughs, however mordant, in a picture that is reliant mainly on the three Ss: sun, sand and sadism.

“You must really love that car, darling,” purrs the grotesque Grandma (Gillian Jones), who sits by her window and knits while making lewd offers. “What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age.” The point is that it has a value to Eric not measurable in money. He press-gangs Reynolds (Robert Pattinson), the hick brother of one of the thieves, into helping him track it down. The rest of the movie follows their search. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Dude, Where’s My Car?

The question of why a beaten-up old jalopy carries so much value acts as both the film’s McGuffin (the superficial pretext for its action) and its Rosebud (the symbol that explains everything and nothing). That much is alluded to when Reynolds, challenged on the matter of his pointless anecdotes, replies: “Everythin’ don’t have to be ’bout somethin’.” True enough. But an audience does need to feel that it is giving over its time for a reason and it’s disappointing that the middle section of the film threatens to go off the boil. Keeping the pot simmering is Antony Partos’s intricate score, which utilises everything from adrenalised synths and abrasive metallic clangs to strings that are nerve-jangling and tendon-taut.

Possibly Michôd overestimated the chemistry between his lead actors. Pearce has a sinewy, stoical energy. When the camera creeps towards his face as he contemplates murder, the moral turmoil behind his eyes is unmistakable. But his odd-couple shtick with Pattinson stays firmly on the page. They don’t have the rapport to sustain the movie when nothing else is happening. The junior actor’s performance is very much in the mould of Rain Man or Nell: he scouts for truth through tics and twitches. Jut your jaw here. Bulge your eyes there. Say “hmm” during moments of panic. Now flash those meticulously broken teeth.

If Mad Max wandered into Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the result would be something like The Rover – dystopian angst with a B-movie buzz. This sort of picture comes effortlessly to Australians. (Think of Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris or much of the Ozploitation genre. Even the film of The Road was directed by an Aussie, John Hillcoat.) Is it because, born with the outback on their doorstep and a history of violent land-grabbing on their collective conscience, they know desolation and remorse in their bones? Whatever the reason, it works. The Rover equals only sporadically the fraught tension of Michôd’s debut, Animal Kingdom (2010), but its horrors feel baked-in and genetic. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East