Magazine | July 21, 2014, Issue

Down-Under Downer

How’s your life right now? Are you in a good place, but worried that you’re getting a little bit too comfortable there? Has everything been breaking your way, and you feel like you need a wallow in misery so that you don’t jinx yourself? Are you sick of run-of-the-mill happiness, and desperate for a little darkness in your life?

Well, then, I have the tonic for what doesn’t ail you. The Rover, starring Guy Pearce as a man on a mission in a near-future Australian Outback, is a 103-minute cure for sunny optimism, a cinematic shot glass full of 100-proof despair. The movie, like its protagonist, is unrelenting. He doesn’t particularly want to go on living, and The Rover is designed to make you feel exactly the same way.

The director, David Michôd, made a savage, gripping Aussie crime drama called “Animal Kingdom” in 2010 — it had Pearce in a supporting role, and Jacki Weaver as a terrifying matriarch in a performance that grabbed an Oscar nomination. That story fairly teemed with life; this one is emptied out and arid. A title card informs us that we’re ten years after “the collapse,” an unspecified disaster that’s turned the Australian countryside into a mostly lawless zone. It’s not quite the post-apocalyptic Outback of Mad Max, since the military still shows up from time to time and dollars (American, ideally) still buy petrol. But it’s still a despairing, decaying place, full of drug addicts, barricaded-in survivors, and weatherbeaten men with guns.

One of these men — though he doesn’t acquire his weapon for a little while — is Pearce’s Eric, whose car gets stolen in the movie’s opening minutes by a collection of thugs fleeing some underexplained Big Score Gone Wrong. Eric is sunburned and bearded and seems to have had everything except resolve scorched out of him, and he really wants his car back. Wants it enough, in fact, to start killing people, without much justification, long before he catches up with the actual thieves: It’s that kind of movie, he’s that kind of anti-hero, and no, he doesn’t get more likable with time.

One person he doesn’t kill is Rey (played by Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame), who’s the Forrest Gump–ish brother of one of the car thieves. Shot and left for dead during their botched whatever-it-is, he doesn’t die, gets stitched up, and then gets enlisted as Eric’s guide in the search for Rey’s sibling’s cronies and the car.

As a pair, they’re interesting to watch. Pearce is one of those actors who are riveting even in repose, and the “hollowed-out man on a mysterious mission” part is one he perfected in Christopher Nolan’s Memento years ago. Pattinson is his inferior in experience and talent, overacting a part that never quite comes into focus, but there’s something about his shambling fool that holds your attention even so.

Unfortunately, watchable leads do not an interesting story make. The Rover sketches a potentially fascinating world but withholds all the details — the nature of the collapse, the politics of the aftermath, the reason American dollars still work as legal tender. It promises a thriller’s plot but then refuses to fill in the information we expect, the material that would make the stakes compelling. It gives us talented actors playing potentially fascinating characters, but declines to elaborate their backstories, or offer more than a cursory explanation of what has brought them to this pass.

It requires great talent — think Terrence Malick, and sometimes not even him — to make a great film out of a plot that refuses clarity, a story that withholds so much. And while The Rover does have some haunting shots, its aesthetics and thematics don’t justify its elliptical storytelling. Mostly what it has to offer — in place of information, world-building, character development — is unrelenting brutality: more, now, again, as the body count rises and cruel twists turn out to be the only kind that Michôd is interested in dealing out.

Past a certain point, this has a numbing effect; a little way beyond that, it might even inspire a little laughter. We do finally learn, at the end of all the lawless roads, exactly why our man Eric wants his car back so very much, and for what secret sorrow, precisely, a dozen-odd survivors of civilization’s collapse have died. And at this secret, revealed in the movie’s closing shot, you would need a heart of stone not to giggle.

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