Austerity is a quality rarely found in today’s noisy, hopped-up movies. Most of the blatant junk we’re getting lately could use a lot more of it. But when bleak austerity is all there is, I find myself longing for the good, old days of plot, narrative structure, character development and the art of telling a story with coherence, purpose and tempo. The deadly new Australian film The Rover has none of the above and all of the excitement of being trapped in the desert without a map, watching a cow skull turn to dust. That much austerity may send you searching for the exit signs.
The Rover ★★
Written and directed by: David Michôd
The Rover, a bleak and pointless exercise in pretentious existentialism by Australian director-writer-producer David Michôd (Animal Kingdom), takes place 10 years after the Western world economy has finally collapsed. Society as we know it no longer exists, the law is only a memory and human life has lost its meaning. In the Australian outback, which was already a parched landscape of death before the apocalypse, things are twice as hopeless. A gallon of gasoline is worth gold, and a car is a precious commodity, more valuable than a teenage boy sold for sex by his grandmother in a roadside garage.
The estimable talents of Guy Pearce enter the abattoir when a gang of hoods steals his automobile and he pursues them with one gang member’s brother as a traveling companion. Mr. Pearce is a lost soul identified as Eric, a rover whose only objective is moving on. The wounded, mentally challenged victim he finds himself saddled with is played by Robert Pattinson (Twilight), with rotting teeth and skin riddled with bullets and caked in filth—a welcome change from the besotted vampire he usually plays. Sputtering incomprehensibly like a rusty faucet in a language he seems to have invented, he’s drawn praise from critics who fail to realize a slobbering moron who is bordering on hysterics is the easiest kind of acting to do.
Director Michôd is the Australian Guy Ritchie. Both are filmmakers obsessed with violent, hateful inquests into the criminal underworld that shock and provoke without making much sense and often look like they were filmed in a crater on the moon. The Rover is a load of weirdness in which every person on the road is a dangerous and demented threat to health and sanity. The only doctor within a thousand-mile radius is a woman who keeps cages of dogs to protect them from hungry carnivores who want to serve them as Blue Plate specials. Mr. Michôd has been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy. In fact, the best thing about The Rover is the sun-bleached images reflected in the camera lens of Argentine cinematographer Natasha Braier—faces peering from the interior darkness of deserted store windows, a train chugging across miles of tracks going nowhere. If nothing else, it’s a film of bereft, pauperized and barren visages not easily forgotten. The aim is to make you forget that nothing else of any importance is going on. Up to a point, the strategy works. Drenched in silence and scorching sun, the film has a quiet elegance that is undeniable; and it captures the terror, desperate heat and remote lost-continent desolation of the outback better than any movie since the 1971 masterpiece Wake in Fright.
Vicious carnage, of course, is the inevitable sidekick of the austerity. In the futuristic hell of Mr. Michôd’s creation, the closest you get to a philosophical point of view is Mr. Pearce’s stoic observation: “You should never stop thinkin’ about a life you’ve taken—that’s the price you pay for takin’ it.” On the arduous journey through a burned-out, futuristic Australia that looks like outtakes from Mad Max, he proves it again and again, blowing the head off anyone who challenges him. In the bloody finale, I counted two people still alive on the screen and only a handful of audience members who cared enough about The Rover to remain seated until the final credits.