In the new film from Animal Kingdom director David Michôd, loner Eric (Guy Pearce) reluctantly join forces with Reynolds (and Robert Pattinson) find the gang of thieves who stole his car in the Australian outback. Screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and in Competition for the Sydney Film Prize at the Sydney Film Festival.
In David Michôd’s The Rover, ‘Post-collapse’ Australia is a grim and grimy dystopia where blood is spilled with no remorse and a man’s best friend is his…Holden Commodore.
Set 10 years after the Australian economy has been obliterated, The Rover’s central thrust revolves around recovering a stolen V8. Pursuit of the dusty sedan gives rise to a story of manly men with no guns, cowardly men with big guns, and of trigger-happy cruelty that spreads like contagion in a dog-eat-dog world.
It’s a familiar premise for the Animal Kingdom director’s second feature, which wears its references on its rolled-up shirtsleeves. The desolate parable of brooding outback justice plays out as though Cormac McCarthy has reimagined Mad Max 2 for the 21st century, with late-model cars and breathable-fibre costumes. The story by Michôd and Joel Edgerton is a dusty homage to better films that have gone before, but its uncomplicated narrative is assisted by a great central performance from Guy Pearce.
Weather-beaten antihero Eric (Guy Pearce) stops off for a drink in one of the many karaoke dives that now dot the yellow-brown landscape (now depleted of its minerals). He parks his car on the verge and stares intently into his drink, unaware of the gang of hoods that are about to nick his car.
The arguing bandits (Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo) are tearing down the highway, putting as much bitumen as they can between themselves and the grisly robbery they’ve just committed. Apparently they’ve killed a soldier and left one of their own (Robert Pattinson) for dead, and the bungled job and its consequences now have them at loggerheads. Their bickering is more focussed than their driving, it seems, and in an instant they’re flipped wrongside-up. The quick crash is captured both from inside the car and from Eric’s (un-noticing) perspective, as the ute somersaults past the bar window like an incidental chunk of metal tumbleweed.
Emerging unhurt, they spy Eric’s Holden and leap into it, because why not, except their wreck’s still roadworthy and Eric is able to give chase. Their ute’s no Interceptor, but it might as well be for the way Eric thunders down the highway in it, bearing down on the rear-view mirror of the unsuspecting carjackers. Rather than swap cars back with no hard feelings, they give the unarmed Eric a temporary head injury, throw his keys into the saltbush and drive on, to parts unknown.
From here, there’s not much for us to do but belt up and go along for the ride as Eric seeks to get his car back and vows to make its robbers learn a sorry lesson about appropriate ownership transferral. As luck would have it, he finds their bleeding dumped cohort, Rey (Pattinson), a slow-talking southerner who may or may not know where they’re heading to in Eric’s precious car.
Amid a series of showdowns, near-misses and general scrapes with the outback helpers and riff raff, there are hints at the past tragedy that destabilised Eric’s moral compass, which in the reductive logic of the times, now simply points towards the car and all its contents.
“What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age,” chides a pedantic grandmother (Gillian Jones) whom Eric encounters during a pit stop for firearms and directions. The matriarch of a travelling circus seems to have a point but comes off second best in a comparison of warped priorities when she reveals her darker, sleazy side. This is one of a few random – contrived – encounters with outback characters that reveal the weird ways people cope with the crisis.
Rey and Eric form an unhappy alliance as they hone in on the culprits, and in keeping with the road trip dynamic, their fireside chats hint at backstory. At one point Rey wearily observes that “not everything has to be about somethin’,” in contrast to Eric, whose desperation for actions to have due consequences fuels his mission to reclaim his car. Mention of past military training explains why they're both excellent shots. The same can’t be said for the still-serving boys (and they are all boys) in khaki, whose terrible aim enables the narrative to progress on more than one occasion; the half-hearted army snipers’ primary goal, it's revealed in one of a few overly expository scenes, is just to stay on the payroll.
Pattinson lays on the southern lilt a bit thick but holds his own as the runt who’s not as dumb as he looks, an ex-miner abandoned by his brother (McNairy). He gets a moment to himself as Michôd pans in on him singing along to Keri Hilson’s ‘Pretty Girl Rock’ on the car radio. The standalone sequence offers plenty of wink-wink value for Team Edward in seeing RPatz beseech, “Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful” (Geddit?!), but doesn’t do much for the narrative. Michôd mismatched music with mood far more effectively in Animal Kingdom when pairing the menacing Ben Mendelsohn with Air Supply music videos on Countdown.
With so much build-up the final showdown can’t – and doesn’t – live up to all expectations, for Eric, Rey or equally, for us. Of course, that’s precisely the point in this story of misdirected rage and misanthropy, which tries to contemplate the cost of violent retribution at the same time it dishes it out.