A decade after a mysterious ‘collapse’ has destroyed modern society, a taciturn, dangerously violent former farmer (Pearce) pursues a set of car thieves across the post-apocalyptic landscape aided by the betrayed brother (Pattinson) of one of the criminals.
David Michôd's debut, Animal Kingdom, a densely populated, thematically layered family crime saga, was an unexpected blast of fresh air from the otherwise seemingly moribund Australian film industry. Whatever he did next was clearly going to be in ‘difficult second movie’ territory, and while The Rover is a competently made thriller with a brace of capable performances and some cracking production design, if it takes nearly half a decade to get a film made, you’d think it might have a tad more ambition than this.
The screenplay, by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, is a Point Blankishly minimalist job — man has car stolen, man carves bloody swathe through the desolate landscape to get it back — but its absence of much in the way of psychological complexity leaves a lot of room for the always effective Guy Pearce to be still and silent: a brooding centre of potential bloody nastiness. Meanwhile, since Robert Pattinson’s performances must all be judged in terms of how distant they are from his drippy bloodsucker of a few years back, it’s nice to report that his turn here is a strong piece of work that promises more to come. A mass of twitches and ticks with a creditable Southern States American accent, he skilfully negotiates the blurry lines of the character, his disquieting innocence set against what might be a dangerous nature, with admirable care. Together with Pearce’s vengeful cypher they’re an interesting enough pair, dysfunctional anything-but-buddies in the road movie from hell.
More intriguing than the plot is the setting: post-‘collapse’ society has not evaporated completely but reverted to a low level of civilisation.There are none of the cannibal gangs of The Road or rococo petrolhead silliness of Mad Max. It’s a rough old world certainly, but cars still run and there’s a functioning currency. It’s believable and the detail feels right. The ending, though... well, that will be an audience-divider: for some a final glint of humanity in an otherwise blasted landscape, for others the bad punchline to a dusty shaggy dog story.
This would have been a striking calling card, and it’s still an impressively solid piece of genre filmmaking with great cinematography and score. But there’s not much here of the ambition of Animal Kingdom, leaving Michôd in ‘difficult third movie’ territory. Let’s hope he gets a move on this time.