A man walks into a bar… it is the starting point we are all familiar with – a simple opener that can lead into all kinds of unexpected complexity and ambiguity. From The Rover’s opening shot of a desolate, swirling outback viewed through a grimy, sand-caked windscreen it is clear that we are making a foray into a world that is hazy and unsettled. The man in question is Eric (Guy Pearce), and the bar is a nameless roadside lean-to serving water, we know little else other than this all takes place in an unmistakably altered society ’10 years after the collapse’. When three bickering, bleeding, and heavily-armed criminals steal Eric’s car from outside the bar, a spartan plot is set in motion as Eric doggedly tracks them through the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The dark underbelly of Australia has always made for incredible films, capturing a sense of lawlessness and severed identity that seemed to be the natural successor to stories of the American frontier – while the Wild West may be won, Australia remains unbridled and untamed. Director David Michôd’s last feature film Animal Kingdom (in which Pearce also appears) breathed a breath of distinctly dusty air to the crime genre, and with The Rover he looks set to do the same to the post-apocalyptic flick. Taking a leaf from fellow-Aussie John Hillcoat’s film The Road, the audience remains in the dark about what happened to the world, and we are fed little scraps about how civilisation now functions as we follow our protagonist. Michôd’s new order of things harkens back to the Hobbesian idea of our earliest states where life is brutal, nasty, and short.
In the course of tracking his car, Eric finds Rey (Robert Pattison) the naive, mentally challenged younger brother of one of the criminals. Rey is badly wounded, but can provide information on his brother’s final destination, and in return Eric can provide a lifeline for Rey, so it is the beginning of an uneasy alliance as the pair make their nightmarish journey. Michôd makes no bones about the dog eat dog nature of The Rover – the result is a film that won’t be to everyone’s taste, much like Hillcoat’s The Proposition, but those undeterred by violence are in for a treat. The Rover is a vehicle for Guy Pearce, who gives an intense and mesmerising performance that slowly unfolds. Eric is a blank slate, but it is obvious that he is a broken one too; while the natural instinct is to attach and identify with our protagonist, the moral ambiguity of his actions lead to a sense of audience ambivalence. Likewise, Rey is made up of equally endearing and repugnant parts, and is a role that Robert Pattison plays with transformative relish.
A slightly jarring ending that seems to offer more of a punchline than resolution will need a little time to be digested, but it doesn’t spoil a remarkable film. The Rover is a dark and bloody thriller that manages to never lose intensity, even when it is making space to explore the bleak vastness of the inner and outer post-apocalyptic world.