Friday 13 June 2014

The Rover

Although The Rover isn't released in the UK until August 15th, those lucky Belgianians have already had it for a couple of weeks. While this state of affairs would normally be enough for me to declare war, a fortuitous turn of events led to me finding myself working in Brussels earlier this week, so I made every effort to avoid eating fucking mussels with my colleagues and instead legged it to the UGC Toison d'Or (Golden Fleece, translation fans) to catch my most anticipated film of 2014. The benefits of this are twofold: firstly and most obviously, I got to see the follow-up to David Michôd's bruisingly terrific Animal Kingdom two months early; secondly, you, the reader (hi Mum) are spared weeks of further foul whining about how much I'm looking forward to The Rover.
Proof that I'm not making up this wild and crazy story

A brief synopsis, then, for the tragically uninitiated: it's Australia, ten years since an economic and social meltdown in the Western world, and one man's (Guy Pearce) only possession - his car - is nicked by a gang of low-rent crims. Taking the youngest crook (Robert Pattinson) hostage, he sets off to retrieve his motor. His plan does not unfold without incident.

First things first: The Rover is no Animal Kingdom. But in all fairness you can't really compare the two: one's a knotty crime family drama while the other is a slow-burning, warped road-slash-buddy movie with bad shit to say about the state of humanity. Scripted by Michôd from a story he co-wrote with long-time chum and Blue-Tongue Films co-alumnus Joel Edgerton, The Rover is a measured, almost languorous piece that simmers under the South Australian sun, a crushing air of pessimism stifling proceedings with little mercy. As tales of slightly insane men searching for stolen, beloved vehicles go, this is about as far from Pee-wee's Big Adventure as you're likely to get.
Alternative title: Cobber, Where's My Car?

Guy Pearce's nameless anti-hero is a blank canvas for much of the film, albeit a canvas that's been screwed up more times than he can probably remember. We know little about him until late in the story (in a steely monologue that's the evil twin of a similar scene in Animal Kingdom), but his appearance suggests a great deal, none of it good. As tatty and battered as the widescreen desolation that surrounds him, Pearce's look here is extreme shabby chic: scarred, his hair cut by a madman (most likely himself) and very possibly held together only by his raggy beard. His character's past is painfully teased out ("I was a farmer, now I'm here" is one of his most revealing speeches), but he's less a person than an elemental force; an avatar for the audience. Michôd wants us inside Pearce's head, and the two men do a chillingly fine job of getting us there.

As the hunt for his car - not an actual Rover, sadly - becomes more intense, the people Pearce encounters become exponentially less pleasant. Everyone has something to sell and everyone is in it purely for themselves, save for one altruistic character. Michôd's concern soon becomes clear: selfish actions have consequences, and those consequences are on stark display in The Rover as a warning. Whatever led to "The Collapse", our greed and predilection for self-preservation played a big part in it. Like all good road movies, The Rover is a film whose roads are literal and metaphorical; the roads we take, and are taken down, don't always lead to warm and fuzzy places.

While Pearce is intensely magnetic, Robert Pattinson is only slightly less successful as Rey, the childlike, mentally underdeveloped gang member Pearce uses to reclaim his car. Pattinson deploys a series of twitches and jitters that occasionally panic you into thinking he could, in the words of Tropic Thunder's Kirk Lazarus, "go full retard" at any moment. It's a tricky performance to pull off, and there's a lot of good work here, but while R-Pattz generally does a grand job of continuing to shed his fangirl-fodder rep he's often in danger of defusing carefully-wrought tension. And while the two men's relationship drives the story's emotional core, Michôd's (perfectly admirable) desire to avoid cliché means it develops begrudgingly and obliquely, which may prove unsatisfying to some.
Technically, The Rover is stunning. The very last film to be processed in Australia on 35mm, it paints the Outback as harsh and unforgiving; a savage purgatory populated by blackened souls in forgotten holes. Michôd's camera moves, too, are deliberate and dripping with purpose, and he loves nothing more than to hold on Guy Pearce's face for as long as possible. Meanwhile the first act's sparse, industrial score of atonal, metallic scrapes and clonks gives way to more melodic fare as Pearce's character begins to rediscover some kind of humanity, and the jarring inclusion of an upbeat R&B track later in the film raises one of its few smiles.

The Rover is thoughtful and bleak, but crucially never dull. It's hard to see it going down well with the Robsessed who retweet every mention I make of the film, and its pace might be too languid for even the most discerning moviegoer. But David Michôd's cinema is intelligent, heavyweight and beautifully played out, and I for one am 100% down with it. This is a fascinating second step in the journey of a director with enormous talent and potential, and whichever road he takes next, I will absolutely be along for the ride.

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