Jesus thanked His Father for hiding the truth from the wise and understanding and revealing it instead to little children. David Michôd’s The Rover takes its cues from this fundamental dilemma, painting an intimate picture of a relationship between one who is wise and understanding and one who is – if not in body, at least in mind – like a little child.
The Rover, Michôd’s second film after the excellent Animal Kingdom, is a sparse, evocative tale set in post-apocalyptic Australia. While its predecessor was a crime film that boasted an impressive ensemble cast, The Rover is closer to a western and limits its focus to two protagonists. The first we meet is Eric (Guy Pearce), a hardened loner, who fills the role of the wise and understanding. In the film’s opening scenes, Eric’s only possession, his car, is stolen by a band of outlaws. Eric then meets up with Rey (Robert Pattinson), the outlaw leader’s younger brother, who was wounded and left for dead by his companions. The two form an uneasy partnership to take back the car. The story is simple, straightforward, and effective, bringing to mind recent minimalistic efforts like J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost or even Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The focus here is placed decisively on the characters, who begin as archetypes and emerge as fleshed-out human beings.
Guy Pearce’s Eric initially fits the archetype of the world-weary, unflappable loner. Comparisons will inevitably be made to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, but Pearce, working from the same template, steers the character in an entirely different direction. For a significant chunk of the film, he says nothing at all, communicating in surly glances as he single-mindedly pursues his goal. When it comes to our sympathies, the film doesn’t stack the deck in Eric’s favor: in an early scene, he heartlessly dispatches another character with the slightest provocation. Immediately after, however, a key scene reveals Eric’s underlying humanity in a wholly unexpected way. His relationship with Rey continues to strain the cynical façade. As Eric bullies Rey and attempts to dismantle what he sees as naïve delusions, we sense that he is trying to convince himself as much as the younger man. Later, having been detained by the military, Eric strikes up a conversation with the man guarding him, asking “The feeling you have when you wake up in the morning, when your feet hit the floor…What does that feel like for you?” Initially, the scene seems to be a Joker-esque bout of psychological taunting, but it takes on a different flavor as Eric, despite the guard’s increasing disinterest, presses on desperately, confessing to a crime in the distant past for which he was never punished. For all his professed cynicism and misanthropy, Eric has not been able to eradicate a deep yearning for order, for justice. Pearce owns the role with an excellent, restrained performance, crafting disparate elements of ferocity, pragmatism, and profound sadness into a persuasive character.
On the other hand is Rey (Robert Pattinson), a mentally challenged outlaw who initially seems to embody the archetype of the young, inept criminal. As the story opens, Rey is suffering from a gunshot wound – a clear symbol of the wound left by his brother’s abandonment. Early on we know that he is no match for the formidable Eric – when initially confronted, Rey slumps to the ground helplessly and Eric is forced to take him to a makeshift hospital. His naïveté is almost comical when, as if rehearsing a speech from a movie, he tells Eric that he has crucial information and is thus “still in control.” For all his childlikeness, though, Rey is not stupid; when he is forced to save a captured Eric, his rescue mission is planned well enough and ultimately successful. Far from criticizing Rey, Michôd seems to suggest that his childlikeness is a sort of link to the humanity that men like Eric have lost. It’s heartbreaking to watch Eric slowly gnaw away at Rey’s devotion to his brother, snarling, “Your brother left you to die. He’s abandoned you out here to me.” Rey’s arc comes to a conclusion in a devastating standoff with his own brother. Shots ring out, and while the conclusion may not be the one we hoped for, Rey has kept his innocence.
Pattinson disappears into the role, revealing a well of talent untapped by the Twilight films. His tics and neuroses feel unaffected, not calculated, and he is able to balance Rey’s cluelessness with an innocent charm while also selling his naked emotional vulnerability. While the film undoubtedly belongs to Pearce and Pattinson, the supporting cast is universally strong. Scoot McNairy only has a few scenes as Rey’s elder brother Henry, but still manages to make a strong impression, suggesting the strength of a relationship that we see little of onscreen. A host of unknown actors fill out the side roles, lending the proceedings an unaffected air.
Michôd’s direction is slow and deliberate, with a tendency to let shots linger. He creates a striking and evocative visual palette using only a handful of ingredients, and avoids expository world-building in favor of small gestures. Rather than mapping out the universe of The Rover in detail, Michôd encourages the audience to fill in the blanks. While the film tends towards a methodical, languid pace, Michôd is more than competent when it comes to action set pieces: standout sequences include a car chase that recalls Spielberg’s Duel and a motel shootout reminiscent of the Coens’ No Country For Old Men. While some viewers may find the slow pace off-putting, more patient audience members will find that The Rover maintains a sense of purpose and momentum, leading towards a wrenching, inevitable, and ultimately rewarding climax.
The sound design deserves a special mention as well. Seldom do gunshots, so commonplace in films, have the impact that they have here –one jumps every time a shot rings out. Antony Patros’ dissonant score contributes mightily to the film’s grim, dreary atmosphere, and Michôd augments his work with a series of audacious music choices (among them, Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock,” which ought to feel out of place but, shockingly, works).
Ultimately, The Rover comes down to the interaction between the wise man and the child, closely scrutinizing the way Rey awakens Eric’s humanity even as Eric tries to destroy it. Michôd doesn’t tackle his subject head-on, choosing to explore theme not in grand, overtly philosophical language, but through careful observation of his characters and the nuances in their behavior. The result is a film that, for all its bleakness, does not feel dehumanizing. This is not to say that The Rover adheres to a strictly Christian philosophy. Most notably, Eric’s scathing speech about the absence of God is never given a strong counterargument. The conclusion to Eric’s arc reads ambiguously, either as a return to his humanity or an indication of horribly misplaced priorities. Likewise, Rey’s arc concludes in a manner that doesn’t exactly tip the scales in favor of hope for the future.
These minor caveats aside, The Rover is a refreshing outlier in a summer packed with bloated, convoluted, overstuffed blockbusters – an incisive study of two characters on a straightforward journey with a clearly defined goal. It’s a bit like Eric: for all its pretensions of bleakness cynicism, deep down, it’s fundamentally concerned with nothing more than simple humanity.