Aside from some exceptional cinematography and a musical score that finally finds a good rhythm halfway through, there’s not one single positive thing to say about the Austrailian neo-sci-fi-slash-miserable-western The Rover. It’s a top to bottom debacle that’s delusional in its pretensions and the rare film that fails at everything it tries to attempt. It balances surrealism, minimalism, ultraviolence, and gritty realism like motor oil mixed with olive oil mixed with sparkling water mixed with water from a puddle someone pissed in. It was a trial to not openly heckle or call the film out on its bullshit as it was unfolding and without question one of the most unpleasant film going experiences I’ve had in years. It certainly does not improve on simply watching a blank screen. It’s the unholy mash-up of Dude, Where’s My Car?, Mad Max, and Killing Them Softly that you rightfully never asked for.
Set ten years “after the collapse” in the arid outback, Eric (Guy Pearce) is a terse, unhappy, scraggily bearded man out on a mission. Three thugs have just crashed their vehicle while making a hasty, bloody getaway and they have decided to steal Eric’s ride. Desperately wanting his car back, Eric vows to track them down and reclaim his property. Helping him on his mission of revenge is slow witted and naive Rey (Robert Pattinson), a brother to one of the criminals and a left for dead accomplice that begins to forge a sort of uneasy friendship with his new captor.
The Rover comes courtesy of writer and director David Michôd, previously responsible for the wonderful gangster drama Animal Kingdom, and he finds himself working on the story with actor Joel Edgerton, who’s no slouch as a writer himself having previously done great work on The Square and Felony. This is as far from a good film as either of them can get: a do nothing and go nowhere 102 minute joke (literally because the end and the title refer one of the worst punchlines I’ve ever heard) that wants nothing more than to flout its own misplaced bravado and machismo.
There’s a huge difference between films that can create a brooding tone and films that simply dwell on an actor looking brooding because they have no clue what else to do. The Rover firmly falls into the latter category, content to while away minute after minute while Pearce is forced to make blank thousand yard stares off into space. What’s he thinking about? Who the hell knows for the first hour and then once you find out you’ll wish you never knew because it will then become apparent precisely how much time you’ve wasted. Michôd goes for calculated cycles of repetition and withholding of explanations as if it were an artistic virtue, but no matter how stunning Natasha Braier’s camerawork manages to be, there’s no covering up how little actually happens of consequence. Then again, when the cinematography is this good in a film with so little going for it, maybe editor Peter Sciberras is the true MVP here by not cutting around it.
Quite bluntly (as if I haven’t been blunt in my thorough distaste already), this film takes place in an idiotic world populated by idiots that are written idiotically. None of the character motivation here makes an iota of sense. It’s never explained exactly what “the collapse” was, but even without knowing the down and dirty specifics of this supposedly post-wartime world, it’s flat out astounding that anyone who shows up on screen could have lasted ten days left to their own devices, let alone ten years. These are characters so stupid (especially the minor characters like shopkeepers and the absolute dumbest tattooed midget arms dealer ever created) that they wouldn’t have survived simply living in the Australian countryside when times were good.
Why would an arms dealer who has survived for ten years suddenly not carry a piece himself and let a psychopath he’s only known for ten minutes hold a loaded weapon in front of him in such a lawless land? Why would a doctor who hates Eric concealing a weapon not have a problem the following morning when he’s threatening to kill the man she saved the night before? What is the actual point of even making Eric and Rey friends when it makes no sense? Why after one ill fated night that goes horribly wrong does Eric feel comfortable letting a constant screw up like Rey – who should have shot Eric in the head when he had a chance – to constantly brandish his own weapon? Why give Rey moments that show he’s actually smart and capable when the rest of the time Michôd and Pattinson are working overtime to show him as a complete cartoonish stereotype of someone with a learning disability? Why do people stand around slack jawed while bad things happen only to use it for motivation for ill thought out and convoluted revenge? Every decision made and every question raised lowers this to a Boondock Saints levels of inanity. It all aims at testosterone fuelled manliness without a single interesting thing to say about it. Plus, as I stated before, once it’s made known what Eric’s true nature is, positively no amount of explanation can save a plot development so reprehensible and so badly staged I had to fight to keep from walking out of the cinema.
The performances can’t save this debacle. Pearce does precisely nothing except glower and repeat himself every moment he’s not sullenly brooding. Pattinson is atrociously over the top, but at least he looks to be having some gleeful fun playing out of character, especially in a left field, but still astoundingly botched and incredibly anachronistic scene where he sings along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” that’s probably the film’s only true moment of levity, joy, or even reason to exist. Credible actors like Scoot McNairy (as Rey’s brother), Susan Prior, and Nash Edgerton all show up in thankless supporting roles that add precious little outside of reminding what the audience what good performers they are.
But by far the worst thing is just how painfully Michôd seems to think his film is actually about something. His thesis about humanity vanishing in an increasingly harsh world is hollow and incoherent, and his film’s underlying economic leanings manages to somehow be racist towards Americans and the Chinese at the same time, which could be forgiven if it wasn’t so unsubtle, forced, and out of place. Apparently in this world with whatever happened, only the US and China hold any real power, with Chinese people almost mystically peppered throughout the land doing precisely nothing and towns now named after Chinese cities and landmarks and the only currency generally accepted in this world where currency means nothing is American money. By the time the character’s we’re following (I would never call them “heroes,” “protagonists,” or “people”) stop at a checkpoint to lengthily watch a Chinese train with American soldiers on it for almost a full minute of the film, it’s clear that Michôd must think everyone watching his film is an imbecile incapable of deciphering simple text.
The Rover certainly doesn’t mean to be a pleasant movie, but it also didn’t have to be a confused and outright insulting mess. Surrealism and realism can co-exist provided that the filmmaker creates a world where the two things can exist hand in hand; a world where actions have consequences. In The Rover, things just happen because of maddeningly obfuscated reasons that can take seconds to explain but for the sake of falsified art it takes forever to make whatever little point it has. He wants his main character to be “the man with no name,” but he turns out to be “the man with no nuthin’.” It’s heartless, soulless tripe without any conviction or conscience. It wants to make the audience complacent in violent acts that they could never possibly have any artistic, emotional, or intellectual investment in. And sadly, by calling it a reprehensible waste of time I feel like I have sunk to the very level the film intended, which means Michôd has won the day. There are those who will undoubtedly herald The Rover as a brave and bracing work simply because of how nihilistic it comes across. Those people should invest in a dictionary and look up the meaning of the three key words in that last sentence.