David Michod is no stranger to the darkness of humanity. In 2010 the filmmaker made a name for himself with “Animal Kingdom,” a menacing and somber tale of a family of criminals which featured an excellent ensemble of Australian actors, most having ventured off to Hollywood since then. It was an assured work from the first time director, showing admirable restraint while maintaining a serious tone and never succumbing to genre conventions. Now, four years later he brings us “The Rover,” a minimalist and searing road movie that does a lot with a little, and while it’s been a while since Michod has been seen on screen, it’s clear that he hasn’t lost his touch, as “The Rover” is something of a masterpiece, featuring an arresting central turn by Guy Pearce.
“Australia. Ten Years After The Collapse.” With this single screen of text we are immediately thrust into the world of “The Rover.” A lonesome drifter, named Eric in the ending credits (Guy Pearce, who also had a supporting role in “Animal Kingdom”), has his car stolen by a group of armed thugs led by Henry (Scoot McNairy, “Killing Them Softly”) in the punishing wasteland of the Outback. Leaving him for dead, Eric soon encounters Rey (Robert Pattinson), a mentally challenged young man nursing a bullet wound and younger brother of Henry. Eric takes Rey hostage, looking to retrieve his only possession at any cost.
Post-apocalyptic worlds in Australia have been done before. Hell, “Mad Max” pretty much wrote the sub-genre, and it would be a fool’s errand to try and top it. What’s refreshing about Michod’s feature is how it takes such an intimate approach to a concept of such massive scope. With only a handful of characters and locations to work with Michod’s focus is never unwavering, maintaining a harsh atmosphere of gloom without every compromising his vision. Aside from the aforementioned title screen there is little to no expository dialogue that explains what happened to the world or why. At no point do Eric and Rey speak with a scientist that explains the reasons of the “collapse” or discuss any specific events in detail. Even the diagnostics of Henry’s crimes (which involve local military enforcement) are never really revealed. Michod has created a bleak and intense world and wastes no time with such matters; you either accept it or you don’t. We do learn little things along the way, including the fact that American currency is the only money of any value, which could actually be seen as a metaphor for the domination of Hollywood’s extensive (but ultimately worthless) influence.
The film is anchored by an incredible performance by Guy Pearce. Playing a man of few words and one who wouldn’t think twice before shooting someone in the head, Pearce is a godsend in “The Rover.” His instincts are razor sharp and his magnetic presence commandeers every frame. Some of the most effective scenes are simply close-ups of his face, as we study the expression of a man who has lost everything. Simply put it’s his best performance in years. The biggest question mark in the film is Robert Pattinson. Perhaps cursed with being labeled a teenage vampire for the rest of his life, I’m pleased to report that the Brit delivers his best performance yet, never once overplaying the twitchy role of Rey, making the character completely his and holding his own against Pearce. It’s exceptional work from an actor who comes from a long line of abysmal productions.
“The Rover” is a revelation from David Michod. It’s pacing is slow but there’s naught a dull moment to be found. Widescreen cinematography by Natasha Braier is also excellent, finding beauty in the harsh, barren lands of Australia. The two lead performances are fantastic, but it’s really Michod’s show, showing true promise and growth as a filmmaker. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait too long for his next feature.