Politics & Policy

Tears and Jerks

Both The Fault in Our Stars and The Rover push buttons

Smack in the middle of its tear-jerking intro, The Fault in Our Stars makes a political presumption: Its teenage cancer patient heroine Hazel (Shailene Woodley) brings up controversial medical trials (“You know, the ones that are famous in Republican mania.”). But this is not the only reason to scoff at The Fault in Our Stars. A bigger reason is its makers’ presumption that humane sympathy can only belong to a particular political class. In this way The Fault in Our Stars irresponsibly sells pathos while also prompting partisanship.

Hollywood political bias is an old story, but this film’s sentimentality is equally hoary. Not even the parents of Young Adult book readers, who felt moved by author John Green’s story of doomed, star-crossed adolescents, were born the last time Hollywood unleashed a comparably maudlin blockbuster — the 1970 film version of Erich Segal’s Love Story. The same sentimental game is played here, down to physically cute (chipmunk-cheeked) lovers.

But Green’s unrelenting emphasis on facing dread and mortality with mordant sarcasm is quite new — sarcastic sophistication is the emotional armor of our time. Hazel and Gus (Ansel Elgort) have all the answers to preempt anyone with positivist bromides (including the defeated novelist played by Willem Dafoe whom the teen lovers visit on a deflowering pilgrimage to Amsterdam). Hazel and Gus beat everyone to their death while depriving audiences of the spiritual insight that distinguished the faith- and abstinence-based A Walk to Remember and even the platonic cancer comedy 50/50. A feminist website cheered this movie as if its mawkishness represented a female point of view. But aside from facile Republican bashing, The Fault in Our Stars is distinguished only by its shamelessness.

***

Australian director David Michôd is another button-pusher. His new film, The Rover, indulges violent aggression and betrayals just like his previous film, Animal Kingdom (2010). Many people enjoy this kind of mayhem for its dark view of human behavior and societal hopelessness that gives the impression of deep thinking. But The Rover is no fun precisely because it is an inconsistent celebration of violence and dark doings. Its clichés include enigmatic men (Guy Pearce hunting down a trio of killers who stole his car; Robert Pattinson as the patsy the killers left behind in a botched robbery); an existential environment (Australia’s vast, dry outback); and a predictably dystopic premise (the opening titles announce: “Australia: Ten years after the collapse”).

It’s not clear exactly what kind of collapse The Rover‘s characters have endured (economic? eschatological?) but that uncertainty is key to Michôd’s scam; he is a South Pacific Tarantino clone. The Rover’s many killings, slaughters, casual decadence, and anarchic behavior seem to be nothing more than an attempt at imitating Tarantino’s jokey sadism. But Michôd’s difference is his bizarre humorlessness. (A backseat-driver dispute among thieves is merely an actorly linguistic tease in the Q.T. vein.) Michôd takes himself and his hackneyed set-ups too seriously. Not a mere genre-lover like the perpetually juvenile Tarantino, Michôd adopts Q.T.’s nihilism as if it gave him insight into the nature of Australian character that was not already memorably covered in Outback (1971) or Welcome to Woop Woop (1997).

There might be some understandable impulse when a gazillion American filmmakers copy Tarantino; they probably relate to the homegrown slang and bravado while also wishing to hit the box-office bullseye and gain hipster cachet. But Michôd shows that this hipster disease has, irrationally, spread globally. In The Rover Michôd adopts an Australian circumstance to Hollywood cliché, regardless of whatever inconsistencies result. (Pattinson plays a wide-eyed, slack-jawed yokel with a weirdly pronounced Southern accent — or is this how they speak in Southern New South Wales?). Michôd already did this with Animal Kingdom’s family of crooks and killers. (That film was his low-rent, matriarchal modernization of The Godfather.) But The Rover takes on the apocalyptic pretense of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which was already adapted into a film by John Hillcoat, another Aussie hipster hack.

The Road took its end-of-the-world nihilism very seriously, while The Rover keeps lapsing into comic detours: Pearce encounters a cynical madam who pimps a youngster (“You want to sleep with a boy? I’ve got a boy you can sleep with. He’s smooth like the inside of your arm”) and makes an unaccountable, patronizing alliance with Pattinson’s hillbilly which serves no purpose other than repeating the treacherous gunman speeches from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

Imitation exposes The Rover’s insincerity. We should be able to see through its overly familiar tropes (Mad Max desert chases that suggest a depressed Road Warrior; characters who emulate Jean-Pierre Melville’s anomic figures; and extreme, graphic violence copied from spaghetti Westerns). This is a case of a filmmaker cheapening his native heritage in order to join dominant culture clichés. The Rover’s title may accidentally invoke the Irish standard “Carrickfergus” (“A handsome rover from town to town”), yet Michôd replaces one culture’s great ethnic romanticism with pointless, hardcore sensationalism.

It’s frustrating when Pearce is arrested by uniformed soldiers who appear out of nowhere. Through this narrative tangent Michôd avoids social context as if hinting at something bigger and deeper than a heartless, slow-paced killing spree. By refusing to detail reasons for civilization’s collapse, The Rover settles for collapse.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World.

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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