Dir. David Michôd
It could be that the Australians have a penchant for the Post-Apocalypse Film simply because their landscape is so suited for it. Miles and miles of barren roads and unforgiving desert... But there is a case to be made that there is a strong survivalist tradition to many of Australia's films, even the ones that don't take place in Thunderdome. There's a wild west vibe built into this country - something we were well-reminded of by John Hillcoat and Nick Cave in The Proposition. And if Australia has a native-son in current cinema who embodies this spirit of weather-beaten endurance, it is surely Guy Pierce.
It doesn't take director David Michôd and The Rover much more than the words, "Australia - Ten Years After the Collapse" and the image of flies buzzing about Guy Pierce's grizzled profile to set the mood. Cinema has a shorthand with this country and we know that there are few things more important than a car with petrol in it and preferably a weapon to keep someone from taking said car and/or petrol away from you. Unfortunately, mere moments after we're introduced to Pierce's character (his name is Eric, though don't ask him to reveal this), his car is taken by three men who appear to be fleeing a heist gone bad.
This isn't Mad Max's collapse. The men aren't wearing bondage gear, sporting mohawks (though reasonable haircuts do appear to have been forsaken), or calling themselves Humungus. It's never fully explained, but this is a collapse in economy and society that feels ongoing and one that doesn't require to much imagination to believe. It's a world of paper money verging on obsolescence, policing being done on a militaristic scale and desperate people being pushed to drastic action. In a way, things become simpler in this environment. Eric just wants his car back. Though witnessing the extreme lengths and means by which he is willing to go about this task does raise some questions.
In trying to track down these men down, using the car the three men left for dead, he first comes across a seedy den of prostitution and vice headed by a lady called Grandma. With a recently acquired gun pointed at her, she reasonably wonders aloud why he is so fond of his car. It's the first and only time this question is raised and, like the images of depravity in and around Grandma's home, it lingers with us until the final reveal of the film.
But Eric didn't just pick up a gun at Gandma's. He also picks up Rey, played by Robert Pattinson. He's the brother of Henry (Scoot McNairy), one of the three men who, like their car, left Rey for dead in their rush to escape. It's been over a year since Pattinson was last seen in Cosmopolis - and if he's been waiting for another role to shed his Twilight sheen, he's picked the right film. Eric's first assumption is that Rey is an imbecile - but that's only half right. He's certainly not the brightest bulb, but he also carries with him far more humanity than Eric is used to. With his dirty teeth showing through his dumb smile and squinty eyes that seem more far apart than usual, Michôd and Pattinson have crafted one of the year's more memorable and sympathetic characters.
As Rey agrees to lead Eric to Henry and his car, we begin to see tiny increments of Rey's compassion seep into Eric - who's taken off-guard by his demeanor. The film seems to posit that only an idiot would continue to cary such feelings in this world or be able to see that behind Eric's threats and acts of violence is still a person worth caring about. Unfortunately, all this osmosis of feelings goes the opposite direction as well and all of Eric's talk of vengeance and skewed morality takes hold in Rey who, like a dog with a new master, seems happy to just be given direction.
David Michôd, with a story credit from his Animal Kingdom actor Joel Edgerton, has crafted another film that leaves any sort of "message" up to the viewer. As the posters tell us, the film is a portrait of what happens when "the man with nothing left to lose" is wronged. We find out in a chilling bit of backstory to Eric's character how his sense of justice became so broken and it adds a bit of a violence begets violence theme to the film, though this is certainly no revelation. But it does shows us how dangerous it can be to all the people involved if crimes, from murder to car theft, go unchecked and unbalanced. And if society does begin to crumble a bit - these crimes might be the first to fall by the wayside and it can all go to hell from there.