Comparisons to George Miller’s “Mad Max” movies are inevitable, but David Michod’s follow-up to “Animal Kingdom,” his remarkable study of a small-time gangster family, isn’t trying for a similar high-octane vibe. To be sure, “The Rover” is set in a dystopian future where society has been reduced to its most primitive level as the result of some apocalyptic disaster, and cars play a major part in the action. But it’s a much grimmer affair than Mel Gibson’s brutally exuberant ones were, and the characters are a far more complex bunch of desperate survivors.
The central figure is Eric (Guy Pearce), a stern, bearded man with an intense look on his face driving a beat-up sedan. He stops at a dilapidated roadside store and his car is stolen while he’s inside, by a trio of thieves fleeing the law—they’re an American named Henry (Scoot McNairy), an Australian called Archie (David Field) and a New Zealander named Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo)—after they crash their getaway truck. Freeing the truck from the ditch where they’d abandoned it, Eric sets off in pursuit. The chase is the essence of the rest of the picture, though the reason for his single-minded determination to retrieve his auto is revealed only at the picture’s end.
Eric, it turns out, is not a particularly nice man. When negotiating with Colin (James Fallon), a surly little person, over the purchase of a gun, he ends the conversation by showing he’s not disinclined to use violence when he deems it necessary (to be fair, one of Colin’s earlier actions was a catalyst, as that closing revelation will suggest). But when he encounters mentally-challenged Rey (Robert Pattinson), Henry’s injured brother whom the trio had left behind for dead, he takes him to a local doctor (Susan Prior) for tending. (She also has a sideline that helps explain why Eric is solicitous for her welfare—watch for that closing revelation again.) His motives in helping Rey survive aren’t altruistic, however: he wants the boy to aid him in tracking down his brother.
As the duo travel together, they share a series of dark adventures, one at a run-down motel, another at a base used by mercenaries hired to keep a modicum of security in the area. The men can hardly be said to bond, but their conversation does reveal a bit about them—a sad secret from Eric’s past that helps to explain his dour attitude, the reason why an American like Rey is in Australia at all. Ultimately they reach the house where Henry, Archie and Caleb have taken refuge, and Rey has to make a choice between his brother and the man who saved his life.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that “The Rover” matches “Animal Kingdom.” It’s a much more spare, simplistic film that in the final analysis hinges on a twist that many will find almost a throwaway explanation. Nor does Pearce, as good as he is, match the performances in the earlier film, which possessed subtlety and shading that the character of Eric simply doesn’t invite. The true revelation in the cast is Pattinson, who sheds the pretty-boy image he’s pretty much coasted on until now to give a performance of considerable depth, eliciting sympathy for his childish demeanor while at the same time persuading that when he does take action, he has the cunning to do so. The film proves that he’s a real actor rather than a mere face.
The rest of the cast are perfectly adequate without being outstanding, with Prior in particular representing a touch of humanity in the midst of ruthlessness and pure self-interest. And technically the picture is solid across the line, with Michod, in collaboration with cinematographer Natasha Braier and editor Peter Sciberras, evoking a convincing picture of devastation while generating an atmosphere of genuine unease. Special praise should go to Anthony Partos, who contributes an idiosyncratic background score, a combination of percussive sounds and screaming synthesizer sounds that enhances the unsettling mood.
“The Rover” isn’t the equal of Michod’s previous film, but it shows that he’s hardly a one-hit wonder, but rather a filmmaker of vision as well as finely tuned technique.