In “The Rover” director David Michod excels in creating a harsh and remorseless post apocalyptic atmosphere. One where everybody has either given up or is struggling to find a reason to hang on. It takes place ten years after a worldwide economic collapse, in the sunbaked Australian Outback. Everything’s dusty and barren and hot. And for the most part it’s still everyman for himself.
The movie revolves around Eric (Guy Pearce), who’s your quintessential Post-apocalyptic drifter. He’s solo of course (at least at first), doesn’t talk unless he has to and when he does talk it’s mainly in an unpleasant and semi angry tone. Although, this anger isn’t totally unwarranted. “The Rover” gets going when Eric’s car is stolen by a group of fellow wasteland travelers. From there, with the forced help of Rey (Robert Pattinson), an American whose brother is one of the thieves, Eric proceeds to track them down to get back his vehicle.
As far as plot is concerned, there isn’t much. It’s as simple as two guys in search of a car. However, “The Rover” is more about character and atmosphere, something that’s sorely lacking from most mainstream cinema. Eric and Rey are basically polar opposites, Eric intense, calm, calculating and slightly insane. Whereas Rey is…well, a stuttering dimwit and that’s putting it mildly. It comes as no shock that when we first meet him he’s been left for dead (by his brother and friends) after some kind of attack and if it weren’t for the fact that he knows where his brother and friends are heading (so Eric can get the car back), he would be of no use to Eric. But it’s this peculiar character juxtaposition that makes “The Rover” interesting. In a normal setting these two would never interact with each other in a million years and yet, when the apocalypse strikes and survival becomes the only priority all kinds of relationships form.
Not surprisingly, Pearce is very effective in playing Eric, a man who has nothing left to lose, a man who before getting his car stolen just wandered around the Outback without purpose and practically dead inside. As the movie goes on you keep asking yourself why he’s so determined to get his car back, but really, what else does he have to do to pass the time? And at the end we find out the very personal reason why he’s so driven to get his car back.
The real surprise in the cast is Pattinson, the “Twilight” star giving an extremely authentic performance as a naïve, dimwitted young man who’s trying to recover from a large dosage of harsh post apocalyptic reality: essentially being abandoned by people he thought cared about him. It can be frustrating to watch his character stutter and stumble around at times but Rey is, nevertheless, endearing and by the end you find yourself caring about him.
There is a general air of pessimism and futility in “The Rover,” which isn’t surprising in a gritty post apocalyptic thriller such as this one. However, what‘s interesting is that amidst all the desolation and lawlessness, small traces of civilization and society try to claw their way back on to the continent. There’s a minor military presence—at one point Eric gets captured by a group of them and is almost sent to Sydney for some unknown purpose—and there are trains up and running carrying some kind of cargo. And perhaps most surprising, the small businesses that sell food and supplies scattered about the Outback accept paper money. In one scene Eric gets infuriated because a gas station will only accept American dollars saying, “Why does it matter? Its just paper!” This question (“why does it matter?”) lingers all throughout the picture – and raises a few more. Why bother trying to restore things to the way they were before? Why try to rebuild society? So that there can be another economic collapse or something even worse? And why is value still placed on paper money when there’s been a major economic collapse? Overall, “The Rover” is about what things have value, or rather what things should have value. What’s worth saving? What’s worth caring about?
“The Rover” is admittedly a slow burn and I have a feeling some viewers will be underwhelmed by how the movie plays out. There is a reveal at the end, but it’s a subtler reveal and I could see some audience members saying, “is that it?” That being said, the picture does a phenomenal job of winding up the tension and creating a level of discomfort. Michod doesn’t give us a lot of time at the start to get comfortable with the movie’s environment or to get acquainted with the characters.
And this being a post apocalyptic film you can expect that Eric and Rey will run into their fair share of roadblocks. Michod manages to keep us on edge the entire duration of the picture; I know it’s a cliché to say that I was on the edge of my seat but there were moments when I was sitting up straight, clutching my armrest. Cinematographer Natasha Braier lets most of the individual shots linger, which helps create even more tension and Antony Partos’ stirring electronic score does its part to amp up the suspense. However the quiet moments feel just as tense. “The Rover” isn’t for everyone but those looking for a deliberate and compelling thriller should be pleased.