The new Australian futuristic crime drama from director David Michod is telling us nothing. There are hints of what has happened in the world – the setting tells us that this is Australia, ten years after the collapse – but exactly what that collapse was all about is never made clear. We have to assume it was a global economic crisis. Characters throughout demand that all payments are made in U.S. dollars; evidently the Australian dollar is now worthless.
Guy Pearce plays Eric. He’s a quiet, introspective loner, driving his car through a mostly deserted outback, passing through what looks like ghost town after ghost town, populated by a scattering of lost souls who appear to spend most of their time sitting around in derelict buildings, staring at the walls looking hot, sticky and not altogether there. Where he’s going or why is never spoken; he’s simply going.
Then, when Eric stops for a drink in the middle of nowhere, his car is stolen by three desperate thieves on the run. Determined to get it back, Eric does whatever it takes. He goes through the motions of buying a gun and then shoots the seller without paying. He takes a truck, then pursues the three who stole his car with nothing but the simple-minded obsession of retrieving his dusty vehicle.
“What is it about that car you love so much?” asks a grandmotherly character (Gillian Jones), a woman who spends all of her days sitting in front of a window, watching what is left of the world drive by. It’s a good question and one that we won’t get an answer to until the final few minutes of the film, though upon reflection, the clue, in a round-a-bout way, is actually in the title, if you think of the title as a pun.
Robert Pattinson is a needy simpleton called Rey, an American who came to Australia with his brother to work in the mines. His character is simple and inarticulate and talks with an undetermined southern drawl that would sound fine when lost in the Appalachians but sounds odd in the Australian outback. And again, like everything else in the film, no explanation about the mines or the allure of mining after the collapse is given, we just have to assume from what Rey mumbles that, like the California gold rush, Australia had some kind of temporary mining boon that attracted workers around the world, then when the boon dried it left them stranded.
The Rover is a bleak, dystopian vision of a world in ruins. We never see the rest of society nor what the collapse has done to it; everything here takes place in the mostly deserted wastelands of the outback. It’s also violent. This is a world where life is cheap; people shoot each other then walk away and get on with their own business without the concern of ever being brought to justice. It’s a grim vision. The film’s everlasting bleakness with just a smattering of dialog may frustrate, plus the fact that we know little about the characters or who they really are and what it was that brought them to this desperate point may frustrate audiences even further.
By revealing nothing of those we’re watching, you end up filling in the blanks, building your own character backstories, It’s difficult to tell if Eric is supposed to be the good guy we root for or if he’s a demented, psychotic killer, driven to be like he is through circumstances created in his life after the collapse. He’s just as merciless as those around him. There’s a moment where he talks of how he killed a man ten years earlier and his dismay at never being pursued for the crime, plus he tells Pattinson’s Rey that a man should never stop thinking about the lives of those he took. “It’s the price you pay for taking it,” he explains, suggesting that Eric himself might be riddled with guilt, though perhaps more accurately he’s just full of it.
There’s no doubt that writer/director Michod is serious about the world he’s created, plus both Pearce and, more surprisingly, Pattinson are particularly effective as two men living a desolate existence where both the beautifully shot landscape and their circumstances are sucking the life out of them. But it soon starts to feel pointless; an exercise in sun-drenched desperation capped by a conclusion that may finally tell us why Eric is so determined to retrieve his stolen car but doesn’t feel enough. The Rover ultimately leaves you feeling as stranded as all these characters baking in the middle a heartless setting.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 103 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)