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Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
Guy Pearce has become the master of bleak. In movies like First Snow and The Proposition, he has traversed harsh wastelands, some metaphorical and some physical, some past and some present, all of them dreary and unwelcoming. In each, he stands as an individual, holding fast to something, be it his sanity or something more tangible like a son. Survival isn't just about staying alive, but also preserving a way of thinking.
This makes Pearce the perfect choice for David Michôd's The Rover, a sparse post-apocalypse road picture. It's like The Road without the obnoxious child or the beautiful devastation; Mad Max minus the mutants. The end of the world is sweaty and dirty and unforgiving, and it takes a determined loner to stand tall while everyone else quietly lies down in the grave.
Pearce stars in The Rover as Eric, a man with no past or future, a compulsive creature of the present. Eric has a car and he's got fuel, two essential tools for staying alive in Australia following the collapse of civilization. Eric keeps moving, staying out of the grip of predators and opportunists, stopping only to grab a bite to eat. It's when he succumbs to this necessity that his car is stolen by a trio of crooks on the run from a job gone bad. Eric pursues them, but they refuse to give up his car, and then manage to get away. We aren't sure what it is about the car that Eric would rather have it than the new vehicle he's replaced it with. He won't tell anyone, he just insists they give it back. From what we can guess, all that matters is that it's his, and no one should otherwise be able to take that from him.
Eric's single lead for finding these runaway thieves is Rey (Robert Pattinson, a long way from Twilight or even Cosmopolis). One of the fugitives, Henry (Scoot McNairy, Killing Them Softly), is Rey's brother. The others left Rey behind when their scheme went belly up. He took a shot to the gut and is bleeding out. Though at first he is merely Eric's hostage, Rey has as much incentive for finding his old pals as Eric does. He's a bit raw about being ditched, we'll come to find.
And so, unlikely allies are born. For as stone-faced and unexpressive as Pearce's Eric can be, Pattinson plays Rey as twitchy and talkative, walking a fine line where at times it's hard to tell if he is cagier than we give him credit for or merely mentally challenged. Other filmmakers would have cast a "gentle giant" in the role, there is definitely an Of Mice and Men quality to The Rover's central pair. Rey does not seem as together as Eric or even Henry, but his being dumb can at times translate as innocence. Mind you, malevolent innocence. Like he doesn't know any better than to kill and rob and do as he pleases, so sorry if that means he'll do you harm. He's better at navigating the back-road trading than Eric, so there is genuinely more to him than meets the eye.
The Rover essentially covers Eric and Rey's journey to Henry's flophouse. Along the way, they peek into many a dark corner but also find occasional rays of light. The point with each is that Eric will not be swayed by either. There are places where he could settle and do some good, or there are places he could otherwise indulge in his own worst impulses. For Eric, though, these are not options, there is only going forward.
Michôd, who achieved international acclaim with his 2010 feature Animal Kingdom (he also wrote the cult hit Hesher), developed the story for The Rover with actor Joel Edgerton, who has moved on from his own success with the crime film The Square to play the heavy in movies like The Great Gatsby and the forthcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings (in which, ugh, it appears the Australian got himself a good tan so he could play an Egyptian). In Animal Kingdom, Michôd told the story of the downfall of an Australian crime family, and how blood connections often lead to bloodshed. Similar themes arise here, particularly between the two brothers, but as the narrative nears its conclusion, we realize that maybe there are certain things a man will fight for--and, in Eric's case, one thing in particular This reveal borders on the corny, particularly when you connect it to the one obvious puntastic clue that has been staring you in the face the whole time, but there is also a simplicity to it that makes it work. Maybe had Eric been a more verbose man, Michôd would have ruined it; it's a perfect example of sometimes it being best to say nothing at all.
In terms of style, The Rover is a stark as they come. It would be easy to dismiss the idea of using the Australian outback as a dystopian wilderness as a cheap convenience, but that would ignore how expertly Michôd and cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Milk of Sorrow) actively make their locations look anything but cheap and convenient. It would have been easier to overdo, to rub everything in grease and outfit the characters in elaborate rags, but The Rover is instead designed with a careful attention to common detail. This is an action movie where the hero is decked out in ugly shorts and a dirty shirt, like a suburban father caught on vacation when the apocalypse came. It's more brutal for how much less is available. Those left alive haven't had the time nor the inclination to develop an aesthetic.
The Rover will certainly be too much for some. Its unrelenting miserablism and lack of uplifting moralizing means that a lot of people die without anyone really learning anything or life getting better. But that's the film's virtue. It's about man's resiliency and his capacity to keep on living even when there is apparently nothing to live for. This is Guy Pearce's true gift, his ability to give so little away while still managing to suggest there is a whole existence buried deep behind those unflinching eyes. Even as The Rover threatens to crumble under its own despair, Pearce ably carries it on his stoic shoulders.
The Rover is widescreen and mastered in 1080p high definition. The picture looks incredible. Detail is exceptional thanks to sharp resolution, allowing for every bead of sweat, fleck of spit, and sun-bleached pebble to be evident. Color is timed to reflect the scene and the mood, including the bright, washed-out desert landscapes, which come off as oppressive and stifling hot, but also dark when at night or in shadowy environs.
The main soundtrack is given a DTS-HD Master Audio mix in 5.1. Like the picture, the audio design is fantastic, with lots of interplay between the speakers and the approprite effects, both subtle and loud, to give The Rover a fully enveloping ambience.
There are also Spanish and English subtitles, including English SDH.
A single featurette titled "Something Elemental: The Making of The Rover", which at 44 minutes goes extensively into the development of the script and the eventual production, start to finish.
There is also a code for a digital copy included, but it's for the unwieldy Ultraviolet platform, so you might want to file it wherever you also filed that free U2 album Apple tried to force on everyone last week.
Highly Recommended. The Rover is an unforgiving, violent, and ultimately meaningful look at a potential future where an economic collapse has left the world without a system of governance or really the general trappings of civilization. Guy Pearce plays a determined man looking to get back his stolen car. Alone in the world until he picks up a half-witted sidekick (Robert Pattinson) who can show him where the thieves have gone, he attempts to hang on to his humanity while also emptying his gun in a whole lot of people. Aesthetically stark and at times emotionally raw, The Rover is a real winner in the post-apocalyptic game.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.