‘The Rover’ falls into the genre of semi-profound post-apocalyptic dramas like ‘The Road‘. It’s essentially a bleak Western, the type that tries to conceal its genre thrills through slow pacing and minimalist meaningful dialogue. It’s an art house con game that rarely works and ‘The Rover’ certainly doesn’t do the genre any favors.
A silent and bearded Guy Pearce stars as the leading lost soul in a land of lost souls. The film takes place in Australia ten years after an unspecified “collapse.” It’s not quite Mad Max territory, but clearly law, order and other society niceties are gone in favor of Western-style marshal law. The closest thing the movie has to a plot clicks into gear when Pearce’s car is stolen by a gang of thieves. He wants that car back, so he chases them for it. When he’s not sure where to find them, he kidnaps a gunshot-inflicted brother of the head thief played by Robert Pattinson. This moron with a Southern drawl reluctantly agrees to help, and the duo kind of become friends over the course of a journey that’s somewhat suspenseful, but ultimately more than a little dull.
The film is the first to come from writer/director David Michôd since his breakout Aussie crime flick ‘Animal Kingdom‘, and it’s one of those inevitably disappointing follow-ups that filmmakers as talented as Michôd generally bounce back from quickly. The problem is that Michôd has decided to create a blood-soaked tone poem for his latest feature and they are damn near impossible to pull off. For those movies to work, you have to be deliberately opaque in style and intent to create a tale that survives purely off atmosphere. It’s all too easy for such a story to fall apart and become meaningless, transforming a film that should be subtly menacing into one that’s overtly boring.
There are times when Michôd pulls off his intentions, especially early on. The gorgeous and carefully framed cinematography of a sweaty, filthy and unforgiving Outback is undeniably compelling. The unexplained post-apocalypse landscape is intriguing, and Michôd delivers a few disturbingly fascinating environments. Even the central casting is solid, with Pearce effectively delivering a silent, stoic, anti-hero routine and Pattinson actually doing some acting as his brain-dead associate (at least until his climatic scene, when Pattinson whimpers himself into an overacting mess).
The problem with ‘The Rover’ is that it never really goes anywhere. The hints of a corrupt post-society are never explored, the pained characters are never revealed to be anything more than their surfaces suggest, the odd stops on the journey never amount to more than disconnected episodes, and all of the moody musings lack any coherent meaning. Worst of all, the hardboiled story eventually stumbles its way to a sentimental finale that undercuts all of the nihilistic atmosphere that the filmmakers pointlessly ride out for 100 minutes.
Had Michôd merely aimed for a minimalist thriller set in a harsh and vaguely apocalyptic setting, he might have at least turned this into something entertaining. However, all those pregnant silences and button-pushing diversions suggest that the movie is building towards something meaningful that never arrives. ‘The Rover’ is still pretty to look at, peppered with genuinely affecting moments, and suggests that Pattinson might still become an actor one day. Yet, in the end, it doesn’t add up to much more than a dour wank from a filmmaker unsure of how to follow up a success. Fortunately, following up a misfire is always easier, so let’s not write off David Michôd just yet.