Modern cinema has something of an oversharing problem. Maybe it’s the surfeit of comic book-based films where exposition and motivation must be spelled out in excruciating detail. Or maybe it’s the impact of the abundant chatter heard in most Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow movies. Whatever it is that sparked this trend, it’s a wonder most cineastes don’t topple over under the weight of so much information on their way out of the theater.
That is also what makes a film like The Rover so startling. We are given the bare minimum of information and motive about almost everything on screen. We are told that the events portrayed take place a decade after “The Collapse,” some unknown incident that has turned at least Australia into a dystopian wasteland. Was it an environmental disaster? A worldwide economic catstrophe? Context clues onscreen indicate either could be plausible, but writer/director David Michod puts enough faith in the intelligence of his audience by not saying anything more.
As for the plot, we are dropped right into the middle without much of a net. We watch Eric, a grizzled, haunted-looking man (Guy Pearce), enter a dingy bar playing disorientingly loud Asian pop and settle in for a long drink. And just as we have resigned ourselves to this scene, it quickly shifts to the inside of a car speeding away from the scene of a crime. Something obviously went wrong; one is injured and angry about leaving his brother behind, and the other two are sweaty and frazzled. Their argument turns into an accident that sends their truck flying. When the dust settles, they steal Eric’s car to escape. Rightfully incensed, Eric takes off after them to retrieve his property, using the crooks getaway vehicle.
That’s it, the core of the movie: a Point Blank/No Country For Old Men-style situation with one man determined to get back what’s his. That alone would make for an amazing 90 minutes of cinema. But notice the one detail I didn’t mention: there’s nothing to indicate why this car is so important to Eric. And until the film’s closing minutes, that detail isn’t revealed. Yet, we are pulled in, desperate to see how this plays out.
Michod throws an extra wrinkle into the plot in the guise of Reynolds, the man who got left behind at the scene of the crime. Wounded and determined, he manages to track down his brother’s truck and Eric. The two reach a kind of impasse with Reynolds promising to lead them to his brother and Eric’s car, and along the way forge a tenuous and discomforting bond that results in multiple deaths. Reynolds is a juicy role, a throwback to Lenny in Of Mice & Men with his easily swayed mind and simple binary thinking about right and wrong. And in the wrong hands, it could have been cloying awards bait. Robert Pattinson pulls off something miraculous here, imbuing the young man such with delicacy and sweetness that you feel for him even at his lowest moments. It’s a revelatory performance that should hopefully scrub away any lingering doubts about Pattinson’s abilities.
The Rover is not without its flaws. Michod wedges some unnecessary backstory for Eric into one otherwise brilliantly tense scene, and the more I think about the big reveal at the film’s close, the less I appreciate it. I want to set them aside as minor quibbles in the face of so much surrounding greatness — aside from the acting and story: the cinematography of Natasha Braier, which renders the Australian landscape in sickly shades of yellow, brown, and green; some of the best musical cues (including Tortoise and Colin Stetson) since Morvern Callar; the political undertones that call to mind the Western occupation of the Middle East — but they glare that much brighter.
There’s no denying this film, though. Michod’s second fiction feature (he directed the acclaimed 2010 film Animal Kingdom) will likely be held as one of the great works of dystopian cinema, and rightfully so. Ignoring the intelligence, artfulness, and energy of The Rover is simply out of the question.