Given the reception his debut feature Animal Kingdom garnered upon release in 2010, there was always going to be much speculation, anticipation and expectation surrounding whatever Australian filmmaker David Michod did next. Opting to forego opportunities in America to complete his second film on home soil, Michod’s follow-up project is somewhat removed from Animal Kingdom but still packs a punch. Mired in the barren nothingness of the remote Australian outback “10 years after the collapse”, The Rover is essentially a pursuit narrative set in a lawless world of crime, violence and desolation. It is never made clear what the collapse is exactly, but it is obvious that the world’s economy has turned to shit. The titular Rover is Eric (Guy Pearce), a man who is plagued by the sins of his past and does not take too kindly to his car being stolen. In a nutshell, this is a movie about a man who just wants to get his car back. Of course, in this most hostile of environments there are myriad obstacles along the way that ensure such a simple objective becomes a much more complicated mission.
Pearce’s Eric is a loner who emerges from a dusty, decrepit bar in a two-bit outpost somewhere in central Australia to find his car has been jacked by a trio of crims – Henry (Scoot McNairy), Caleb (Tawanda Manyomo) and Archie (David Field). With Henry’s injured brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) in tow, Eric sets out to track the thieves. There is violence aplenty as Eric and Rey fight for their own survival in a world where even those responsible for law enforcement are motivated by money rather than any desire to see justice done. Eric is single-minded in his desire to find his car and deal with those who took it from him and anybody who gets in his way pays the ultimate price. Both Pearce and Pattinson are equally impressive in their roles, the former with a dispassionate view on almost everybody he meets and the latter all tics and incoherent mumbling. It is the changing nature of their relationship and their shared resolve – Rey was abandoned by Henry and left for dead – that drives the narrative as they are forced to rely on each other in order to reach their objective.
It is actually not hard to imagine this world Michod has created as a future reality. With most of the world’s economies having collapsed, desperate characters from around the globe have landed in Australia seeking opportunities in the mining industry, which continues to operate. However, with the desperation of the populace leading to violence at every turn, trains carting iron ore to the city are manned by armed guards. American dollars are the preferred currency and nobody can be trusted in a world in which survival is the daily objective. With telegraph poles serving as crucifixes, it is almost as though Australia has gone full circle; returning to the primal savagery of more than 100 years ago as depicted in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (which also featured Pearce). Argentinian cinematographer Natasha Braier has captured the isolation of central Australia in all its gory glory, presenting an outback much more menacing than that presented in the likes of Wolf Creek. The ramshackle towns are populated by folks who seem utterly debased by what has transpired and are desperately eking out an existence by any means possible, with any outsider viewed with suspicion, if not derision.
As good as so much of The Rover is, the fundamental failing of the film lies with the ending. It is at this point that we find out why Eric is so desperate to get his car back and I found myself asking “what the?”. In fact, it is the idea that Eric wants the car back purely as a matter of principle that makes his relentless pursuit so interesting. When we are presented with the motivation for his actions, it seems designed purely to manipulate us into accepting Eric’s behaviour as justifiable and only serves to undermine everything that has got us to this point. Ultimately though, with solid supporting performances from McNairy, newcomer Manyomo and the always reliable Field, along with the likes of Anthony Hayes and Susan Prior, there is still plenty to recommend here in what is yet another example of quality Australian filmmaking and, despite the flawed final moments, The Rover is very much worth watching.