Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy
Director/co-writer David Michôd suffers a sophomore slump in this disappointing follow-up to his well-crafted debut “Animal Kingdom” (2010), a crime drama about family of Melbourne gangsters led by a violence-prone matriarch (brilliantly played by Jacki Weaver).
“The Rover” is a minimalist dystopian drama with more plot-holes than plot. The filmmaker nonetheless wisely stacks the filmic deck with outstanding performances — namely from Guy Pierce, and from Robert Pattinson, whose impressive character-acting work here helps conceal at least some of the film’s many flaws.
“Things fall apart. The center cannon hold. Anarchy is loosed upon the world. Fear the man with nothing left to lose.” “The Rover’s” tagline sounds like it was ripped off from a ’70s era exploitation revenge thriller. Perhaps, if David Michôd had paid homage to the grindhouse format — in the manner of Robert Rodriquez’s hilarious “Machete Kills” — he could have come up with a more entertaining movie.
The sallow story is set in a near future of the desert-like Australian Outback where roadside shopkeepers only accept American money for the limited stock that sits on their dust-covered shelves. An economic collapse ten years earlier has reduced the Outback to a lawless version of America’s Wild West where life is about as cheap as it is in Iraq since the U.S. military got its hands on it. Deceased torture victims hang from roadside crucifixes as a sign of the times.
U.S. soldiers, or some form of outsourced mercenaries with American accents, have a presence in the country. Eric (Guy Pierce) is a cynical traveler with no allegiance to anything or anyone other than his own wounded sense of guilt over a double-murder he got away with many years earlier. Deep down, Eric wants to be tried and punished for his crime. He’s an atheist, too, so there’s a chance the filmmakers are making some opaque critique of organized religion or those that go against the grain. Either way, the subtext is too gaunt to for such extrapolation.
Eric’s quick temper gets a chance to swell when a crew of fleeing criminals steals his car after crashing their own vehicle outside of the diner where he eats. Plot-hole alert. Miraculously, their wrecked truck still works well enough for Eric to start it up and give chase. For a movie that takes itself so seriously, you’d think the screenwriters would have established a more plausible inciting incident than this one.
Eric discovers a recently abandoned and belly-shot Rey (Pattinson) crawling on the ground. Rey is brother to one of the car thieves who Eric pursues with inexplicable ferocity. So it is that Eric takes Rey on as a willing hostage who is as in need of immediate medical care as he is of social guidance. Eric cares not a whit about Rey’s needs.
The movie endures some protagonist substitution as the slow-witted Rey, wins our empathy as a badly hurt but rabid dog in need of some serious TLC. Based on Pattinson’s scene-stealing performance — complete with pained speech and awkward body language — you could come to the conclusion that “The Rover” was designed purely as an actors’ showcase. Pattinson’s Rey is a study in the ability of method acting techniques to elevate lacking source material. For his part, Guy Pierce gives as good as he gets from Pattinson. More often than not, sparks fly between the actors during their many scenes together. The mystery of their hostile relationship sustains the film’s suspense more than any of its other throwaway elements.
“The Rover” comes off as an unsure attempt to curry favor from the likes of John Hillcoat, the Australian director responsible for “The Proposition” (2005) and “The Road” (2009) — two films that seem to directly influence it. Stylistically, it’s a handsome movie shot on film rather than digital that takes advantage of widescreen framing to strong effect even if the script beneath it needed several more drafts. CV
Cole Smithey — The Smartest Film Critic in the World — has covered every aspect of world cinema since 1997. His reviews and video essays are archived online at www.ColeSmithey.com.