Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Rover (2014)

Australia, ten years after an economical apocalypse that leaves the country looking quite close to the first Mad Max film.

Henry (Scoot McNairy) and two associates have stolen something valuable, leaving behind Henry’s developmentally challenged brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) for dead. Thanks to the distracting powers of bickering they crash their truck during their flight. They’re lucky in basically crashing – and it’s not much of a crash, as they’d realize if they weren’t bickering and in panic – the truck right next to a fresh ride, which they proceed to steal.

The nameless owner of the car (Guy Pearce), a man with trauma and violence written on his face, doesn’t take the loss of his ride well, and begins to chase after the car thieves in their own car, proceeding in a manner that suggests he has left sanity and reason somewhere behind in the world before the Collapse. Leaving a trail of bodies – both real and metaphorical – behind, the man encounters Rey and – after getting him patched up - decides to press him into service finding Henry.

David Michôd’s The Rover is quite an astonishing film in the way it uses elements of the post-apocalyptic films that came before it – with the first Mad Max a particularly close relation in the shape of its apocalypse and in what I can only describe as Australian-ness (australity?) – to make a meditative film about lives that don’t stop just because the world has decided to stop, finally making all the tenets of nihilism true for its characters in a world where nothing they do is of any import anymore, and where violence isn’t even morally important enough to cause much reaction from anyone anymore. To the people roaming the wastelands here, there’s not even enough reason to life anymore that concepts like sadism or transgression matter much in their violence.

Consequently, most of the film’s unpleasant acts are pictured with an emotional apathy, suggesting most everyone we see in the film (and wouldn’t that be the whole world) to be suffering from some form of PTSD. In a move as clever as it is disturbing, Michôd always gestures towards some of the things an audience would expect in this sort of film and world, some suggestions of healing, or redemption, or even just a clear explanation of why the characters here do what they do, yet never lets the characters go through with these gestures in any meaningful way, everything not just ending in blood but feeling as empty and dried out as people’s lives have become.

The Australian desert landscapes are a perfect fit for this sort of tale, both through their suggestion of other Australian desert landscapes in other post-apocalyptic films, as well as in their mirroring of the characters’ loss of humanity (or is it the other way round?).

Watching the film, I found myself particularly impressed with the way Michôd suggests much of its world, as well as of the inner lives of the people living in it, through minor throw-away details he trusts the audience to notice. Which, after reading some of the reviews of The Rover that can only see Pearce’s character as a cipher because the film only discloses in its last scene why his car is so important to him despite the fact that he can – and already has – easily acquired another one, is clearly too much trust for the sort of viewer who wants everything to be “relatable”, which is to say, without herself having to do any of that pesky thinking or relating. How you can watch a performance like Pearce’s grand, subtle, portrayal of a man who really has lost any concept of meaning in his life stumbling through a world utterly incapable of even suggesting one to him, going through the motions of violence and survival not because of any true will to survive but just because that’s what you do, and still feel the need for a detailed explanation (one supposes with many a flashback with dramatic violins on the soundtrack), I honestly don’t understand. But then I’m usually pretty annoyed by the tendency of parts of the movie and TV watching world to need every piddling detail of a film explained to them in excruciating detail. as if using one’s own imagination from time to time were unthinkable.

But speaking of acting for another moment (instead of ranting further), despite laying it on a bit thick for my tastes from time to time, Robert Pattinson actually delivers a performance that not just doesn’t embarrass him beside Pearce but really provides the film with an easier emotional anchor (and hey, relatability-needing people, that’s the character in the movie for you), if one that suggests a disquieting irony – namely, that you need to be as intellectually and emotionally challenged as Rey is to even countenance the idea of hope in a world such as the one he lives in (“innocence” doesn’t come into play here at all, by the way, because Rey is utterly immoral).

The Rover does a lot of thoughtful things with the clichés of post-apocalyptic cinema without feeling the need to get on its soap box and moralize yet also without condoning – or enjoying – its characters often horrible deeds.

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