“You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken,” the grizzled hero of The Rover tells his young hostage-turned-partner. “That’s the price you pay for taking it.” Plenty of lives are taken in The Rover, the second feature by the talented and daring Australian director David Michôd. And as that weighty advice suggests, none of them is taken lightly. Blood is spilled, as is to be expected in a film that explores a world on the brink of ruin, but each death echoes through the story the way the hero’s gunshots echo across the Outback.
It’s 10 years after some kind of global economic collapse, and while Southern Australia isn’t entirely lawless in the Mad Max mode, it’s definitely seen better days. Dollars can still buy you food or gas, though good luck getting someone to take your Australian bills—USD only in your finer squalid huts. The telephone poles are decorated with crucified men, and trains crossing the territory are guarded by mercenaries in wraparound shades.
In making a movie that skirts the edges of post-apocalyptic cliché, Michôd is aided immeasurably by his actor, the indispensable Guy Pearce. Though he’s a handsome and intuitive actor, Pearce rarely plays lead roles—you know him best as the amnesiac at the center of Memento, but may have seen him most recently as the guy who gets blown up at the beginning of The Hurt Locker. It’s a welcome sight, seeing him carry a movie again. He’s austere and fascinating in The Rover, and his seriousness of purpose undercuts any possible campiness in the film’s world-gone-wrong setting: Each scene may be more dire than the last, but we care about Pearce, so we care about the movie.
Windblown and bearded, Pearce’s character goes unnamed, and I cannot bring myself to call him Eric, the name the credits give him. Instead, let’s call him Guy—because that’s Pearce’s name, and because the name fits the archetypal nature of this haunted, anonymous figure. At the beginning of The Rover, Guy is nursing a drink when three men on the run after some kind of violent crime steal his car. The rest of the movie chronicles Guy’s single-minded efforts to get that car back.
Who is Guy? “I was a farmer,” he says. “Now I’m here.” He’s an excellent shot with a rifle. He’s still, taciturn, and at times ruthless, but not cold-blooded. Pearce plays Guy so modestly that at times the man seems empty inside, but we learn over the course of the movie that Guy is quietly haunted by his past: When an antagonist tells a captured Guy it’s all over, he replies sadly, “Whatever you think is over for me was over a long time ago.”
The Rover hinges on Guy’s connection to Rey, the wounded, simple-minded brother of one of the thieves, whom Guy forces to lead him to his car. Rey is played by Robert Pattinson, and I’m happy to say I can’t imagine a more audience-unfriendly left turn Twilight’s icy dreamboat could have taken. His performance—teeth yellowed, eyes darting, speech filled with tics—is mannered but thoughtful. The two make an odd pair—they have some real #truedetectiveseason2 moments driving across the outback, Rey chattering away, Guy silently glaring—but the movie movingly explores the kind of stunted connection that can grow in arid soil.
Michôd’s debut, Animal Kingdom (in which Pearce was excellent in, you got it, a supporting role), was an awesomely self-assured gangster epic; it garnered Jacki Weaver an Oscar nomination and served as American audiences’ first taste of a certain school of contemporary Australian filmmaking—entertaining, gritty, and mordantly funny. (Michôd is part of the filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, and co-wrote the must-watch Blue-Tongue short Spider.) The Rover shares with Animal Kingdom a fascination with primal human behavior, but Michôd’s pacing is much slower and his scale more modest this time around (despite the epochal world catastrophe the film hints at). Nonetheless, Michôd demonstrates once again that he can stage a standoff with wit and flair, whether it’s between armed men or between Guy and a vulture eyeing him appreciatively from the bed of a truck.
“Not everything has to be about something,” Rey protests when Guy dismisses one of his stories as meaningless. It’s an argument on behalf of the movie itself, in a way; frustrated viewers might declare the movie isn’t about anything, but in fact it’s about nothing—or nothingness, really, and what seeps in along its edges. In the sere Australian desert, life sustains itself on very little. In the absence of civilized authority, commerce and community survive, though they’re constantly at risk. And even in a life as emptied out and violent as Guy’s, some spark remains. Michôd’s film is barren and brutish, but Pearce’s haunted performance also makes it human.