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Pattinson Surprises in Post-Apocalyptic Arthouse Film The Rover

Pattinson Surprises in Post-Apocalyptic Arthouse Film <i>The Rover</i>

DVD Release Date: September 23, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: June 13, 2014 limited; wider June 20
Rating: R (for strong language and some bloody/graphic violence)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 102 min
Directors: David Michôd
Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scott McNairy, Tawanda Manyimo, David Field

There are films that separate the moviegoers from the cinephiles, and The Rover is certainly one of them. There's great craftsmanship on display here – controlled, meticulous, even soul bearing – but it's also the polar opposite of escapist fare. On the contrary, The Rover takes us through the wringer right along with its two leads. It's also a prime – and primal – example of just how vigorous the cinematic medium can be.

Set ten years after an undefined global apocalypse (referred to here simply as "The Collapse," which suggests a financial rather than militaristic reckoning), The Rover focuses intimately and intensely on a small rural corner of this God-forsaken rock – the Australian Outback, specifically. People continue to live off the leftovers of the bygone culture, scrounging for scraps in a grimy and lawless world. It's basically a less-stylized, more realistic version of Mad Max; a completely humorless Wild West-like tale of obsession that explores the human condition when brought to the breaking point.

The story follows Eric (Guy Pearce, Iron Man 3), a hard-boiled ex-soldier who's just trying to keep his head low and mind his own business. When a trio of thieves steal his car, however, Eric snaps. Using the banged-up truck they left behind, Eric pursues the three men; yes, to get his car back, but more truthfully it's a catalyst for Eric to mete out an accumulated rage against an unforgiving world. He's outmanned and outgunned, and he doesn't even need his car back as their truck runs perfectly well, but he's a man obsessed. His pursuit isn't about justice, and certainly not born of necessity; it devolves simply into vengeance.

Along the way, he gains an accomplice: Rey (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga), a brother of one of the thieves. While Eric is hardened, Rey is more of the abused animal; broken down and weak, still holding to some ideal of a quiet and peaceful existence, yet so traumatized that despite his own forgiving nature he'll lash out when threatened. He's the human equivalent of the mangy stray in need of a home. Rey joins Eric in the hopes of reuniting with his brother, believing their separation was accidental, even as Eric tries to dispel Rey of that naïve and misplaced notion.

The premise is basic, and the narrative remains streamlined. Consequently, The Rover is much more an exercise in cinematic style and psychological study than anything else, one that plays with what can be created and revealed through action and tone rather than exposition or backstory. What's created is palpable; what's revealed is negligible.

It's the second film from writer/director David Michôd, the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2010 indie crime thriller Animal Kingdom. While both movies strive for similar aesthetic provocations, this time out Michôd looks to reach them in very different ways, stripping away the narrative and character complexities that were scripted into his first film and instead limiting himself to what his directorial craft can observe, capture, and mold.

The answer to that is both a lot and not enough. There's plenty of atmosphere and grim, violent viscera to compel and engage us, and it's a thrill to watch a film directed with such precise intension and control, and such a gift for genre ambiance, but our lack of understanding these characters – who they are, where they came from, and what they've personally lost – keeps us at arm's length, as does the nihilistic thematic simplicity.

Do we need to know details to care? Certainly not. In fact, enigmas can be fascinating character studies in their own rights (although that's more true for villains than protagonists). As Rey even says at one point, "Not everything has to be about something." But here, while there's plenty in this milieu to draw us in, there's actually very little for us to invest in. Sure, we may not need more than the barren and brutal post-apocalyptic Hellscape to appreciate why these men are the way they are, but it'd be nice to have something substantial to grab onto so that we could see these characters as more than just mice running round-and-round on an Armageddon wheel.

Still, to suggest that we don't care for these two men wouldn't be accurate; we do, even deeply so, because of what Pearce and Pattinson so fully invest. In fact, it's hard to imagine actors more fully submerged into their own characters' psychoses, but for as much as they're giving, Michôd is choosing to keep more from us. So at the end of it all, while we do care for Eric and Rey, we really don't care what happens to them – and a part of us even compassionately wishes they'd just be put out of their own misery.

Still, as screen performances go, the co-stars are at peak tour-de-force levels. Pearce has never been this raw and ruthless, yet he's not cold or sociopathic. His Eric is a tragic and necessarily-viscous product of his environment, a victim who consciously struggles to suppress his soul in order to survive physically and mentally, even as it's killing him spiritually. As he tells a man who threatens to murder him: "Whatever you think is over for me was over a long time ago."

But the surprise is Pattinson. Despite an already successful career in both blockbusters and indies, Pattinson's turn here stands as one of the biggest revelations to hit the screen in quite some time. By immersing himself so deeply into Rey's fragile psyche, with physical ticks that are instinctive rather than calculated, Pattinson completely redefines how we must consider his talent moving forward. The ease of his American southern twang (he's a Brit in real life) is so natural and convincing that, if you weren't the wiser, you'd suspect he'd just been yanked straight out of the hills of Appalachia. After this, it's hard to imagine Pattinson not being able to tackle anything that's thrown at him (dramatically, anyway).

The movie's marketing tagline reads, "Fear the man with nothing left to lose." That certainly makes for a compelling psychological premise, but one that's also muted by the fact that the man really doesn't have much to gain either. Even if he succeeds, would his lot in any way be improved? It's all just hopeless. That bleak state makes The Rover a discerning choice rather than a popular one, but for the viewer compelled by a serious director taking artistic risks – and actors swinging for the fences – it's an exercise worth considering.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Liquor is consumed at a bar.
  • Language/Profanity: The F-word is used pervasively throughout. Five uses of the Lord's name in vain. A few S-words. A couple of scatological/sexual slurs.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: None. One man briefly offers to pimp out a boy to another man, although the boy is never seen.
  • Violence/Other: While not constant, when violence occurs it is gruesome, bloody, graphic, and often very abrupt and shocking. True to the subject matter, it is occasionally traumatizing. Individual men are murdered with guns at point-blank range shots to the head throughout the course of the movie, depicted graphically. Other forms of gun violence and shoot-outs also occur. Other men are shot in the neck; the wounds are graphic, and they bleed out. Other instances of people held at gunpoint, with the fear of murder looming. A woman is roughed-up and thrown to the ground. A man’s hand is injured and bloody. An overall atmosphere of foreboding danger. A man squats to defecate. Some dead bodies are piled up and burned. A woman performs surgery on a gun wound. A young girl is shot in the chest, killing her.

Publication date: June 20, 2014