Film Review: ‘The Rover’

The Rover Cannes 2014

Two unlikely traveling companions traverse the existential badlands of the Australian outback in 'Animal Kingdom' director's striking follow-up.

The promise of Australian director David Michod’s 2010 debut feature, “Animal Kingdom,” is amply realized in “The Rover,” a post-apocalyptic road movie of sorts set a decade after some unspecified cataclysm has turned the world — or at least one far-off corner of it — into a mercenary no-man’s-land. Tipping its hat to George Miller’s “Mad Max” trilogy while striking a more somber, introspective tone, Michod’s sophomore feature isn’t exactly something we’ve never seen before, but it has a desolate beauty all its own, and a career-redefining performance by Robert Pattinson that reveals untold depths of sensitivity and feeling in the erstwhile “Twilight” star. A commercial challenge due to its mix of explicit violence, measured pacing and narrative abstractions, the pic should earn the warm embrace of discerning genre fans and further establish Michod as one of the most gifted young directors around. Upstart U.S. indie A24 rolls “The Rover” out June 13, simultaneous to Oz release via Roadshow.

Exactly what has gone wrong in the world (referenced only as “the collapse”) is never explicitly stated here; nor are the motivations of the film’s taciturn central character, Eric (Guy Pearce), up until a deftly handled and unexpectedly moving final scene. All we know for most of “The Rover” is that Eric really, really wants to regain ownership of his car, which is stolen in an early scene by a trio of agitated, desperate-looking men fleeing from the scene of a crime. After flipping their truck outside a forlorn watering hole, the men — a white Australian (David Field), a black New Zealander (Tawanda Manyimo) and an American (Scoot McNairy) — continue on in Eric’s dust-covered sedan. Having rehabilitated the damaged truck, Eric promptly gives chase. We are somewhere in the south Australian outback, and the road stretches toward an infinite horizon.

Eric’s journey takes him ever deeper into the parched, desolate landscape, shot by Michod and the Argentinian-born d.p. Natasha Braier (“The Milk of Sorrow”) in arresting widescreen compositions that constantly frame the actors small against the vast, enveloping nothingness. Makeshift trading posts dot the way — only American dollars are accepted, in one indication that the “collapse” was at least partly an economic one — while periodic glimpses of military convoys imply that society may be under martial law.

Also en route: arguably the creepiest farmhouse since “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” where a disturbingly courtly grandma (the excellent Gillian Jones) keeps watch over a traveling circus that long ago stopped traveling. It’s there that Eric crosses paths with Rey (Pattinson), the badly wounded fourth member of the fugitive gang (and the younger brother of the lone American), whom he takes as a kind of hostage before continuing on his way.

Slow of wit and tongue, Rey resists his captor’s prying questions about the others’ whereabouts and motives — as well as his repeated suggestion that Rey had been left by his own brother to die on the side of the road (a point of connection with “Animal Kingdom” and its insidious, intra-familial betrayals). But after being patched up by a lady doctor (Susan Prior), he agrees to lead Eric to their hideout and his hoped-for reunion with his beloved automobile.

The road traveled from there shares something with the existential highways of movies like “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Vanishing Point,” in which the characters keep forever moving forward because stasis looms as a kind of symbolic death. Only gradually do both men divulge a few spare details of their respective pasts: Eric admits to a crime in his past for which he was never brought to justice, further eroding his already fragile faith in humanity; Rey says that he and his brother came to Australia looking for mining work — evidently one of the only growth industries left in this new world order. To say that these unwitting traveling companions gradually grow close would be a bit of an exaggeration, but a hesitant sort of trust takes hold, and when the two find their backs against the wall, they join forces against a common threat.

Pearce is fiercely impressive here as a man who gave up on the human race even before the latest round of calamities, and if there are occasional glimpses of the kinder, gentler man he might once have been, we are more frequently privy to his savage survival instincts. But it’s Pattinson who turns out to be the film’s greatest surprise, sporting a convincing Southern accent and bringing an understated dignity to a role that might easily have been milked for cheap sentimental effects. With his slurry drawl and wide-eyed, lap-dog stare, Rey initially suggests a latter-day Lennie Small, but he isn’t so much developmentally disabled as socially regressed — an overprotected mama’s boy suddenly cast to the wolves — and Pattinson never forces or overdoes anything, building up an empathy for the character that’s entirely earned. He becomes an oasis of humanity in this stark, forsaken land.

Those looking for big action and bombast will inevitably be disappointed, but Michod (who also wrote the script, based on a story he conceived with actor-writer-director Joel Edgerton) strikes an eerie, unsettling tension early on and rarely lets go — a mood immeasurably enhanced by “Animal Kingdom” composer Antony Partos’ original score, which compensates for the film’s spare dialogue with an inspired mix of industrial shrieks, tribal drumbeats and wails, and fleeting snatches of melody. The rich soundscape is further enhanced by sound designer Sam Petty’s crisply recorded and mixed effects, which bring every humming electric light, chirping cricket and whirring engine to the fore.

Film Review: 'The Rover'

Reviewed at Dolby 24, New York, May 6, 2014. (In Cannes Film Festival — Midnight Screenings.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.

Production

(Australia-U.S.) An A24 (in U.S.)/Roadshow Films (in Australia) release of a Screen Australia and FilmNation presentation in association with South Australian Film Corporation, Screen NSW, Yoki and Blue Tongue Films of a Porchlight Films/Lava Bear Films production. (International sales: FilmNation, Beverly Hills.) Produced by Liz Watts, David Linde, David Michod. Executive producers, Tory Metzger, Adam Rymer, Vincent Sheehan, Anita Sheehan, Nina Stevenson, Glen Basner, Alison Cohen.

Crew

Directed, written by David Michod; story, Michod, Joel Edgerton. Camera (color, widescreen, 35mm), Natasha Braier; editor, Peter Sciberras; music, Antony Partos; music supervisor, Jemma Burns; production designer, Jo Ford; art director, Tuesday Stone; set decorator, Jennifer Drake; costume designer, Cappi Ireland; sound (Dolby Digital), Des Kenneally; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Sam Petty; re-recording mixers, Robert MacKenzie, Sam Petty; visual effects supervisor, Dave Morley; visual effects, Fuel VFX, Method Studios; makeup and hair supervisor, Fiona Rees-Jones; stunt coordinator, Tony Lynch; assistant director, Deborah Antoniou; casting, Kirsty McGregor.

With

Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field, Anthony Hayes, Gillian Jones, Susan Prior, Richard Green, Tawanda Manyimo, James Fallon. (English, Mandarin dialogue)

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  1. robRmh says:

    I’m seriously looking forward to this film, Australian films must be seen first, the culture, stories, the whole vibrations are different; I do know they made this film in scorching heat in South Australia. I liked Variety’s review and do look to them for credibility..

  2. Garry says:

    Ah this film is getting terrible reviews… Critics are saying it’s basically pointless and that, that was the intention of the filmmaker but it isn’t strong enough to pull it off. R Pats is getting mixed reviews. Guy Pearce is being universally praised and so he should be judging by the trailer. Besides THR and Variety most of the reviews are not good. I guess it’s one of those wait and see films and we will only know the truth once the dust settles.

    • Jane says:

      Garry: OK, if you insist on playing this silly game… I have read all of the reviews, and I’d say 80% are glowing with praise, about 20% say there are many admirable things about the film, but those particular reviewers had some criticisms, which is certainly their right to point out. However, ALL of Rob’s reviews have been positive. Not some, but all. The one review that says he’s the weak link goes on to say that it’s not because the performance is bad, but just that this reviewer felt he’d seen this type of character before. But that was the only criticism. There is not one “terrible” review, as you call it. Not one. That’s just nonsense. Your ridiculous attempt to distort the facts is truly pathetic.

    • Jocasta says:

      I certainly do not know where you are getting your information from, but I have been following all the reviews for this film (several dozen). Almost all of them have given this film positive reviews, some with very high praises, and not a single one has given Mr. Pattinson a bad or even mediocre review. To the contrary most are quite glowing about his performance. I can list them all if you like to prove you are incorrect at best, or making things up at worst.

      • Garry says:

        No actually I’m not making things up. I woke up to IndieWire and then followed by The Guardian and about 6 others. I was excited about the film because I’m an Aussie. The reviews are saying the film is about nothing and that although Pattinson shows he could possible be a great character actor one day, his performance was more of a ‘homage’. That he is the ‘weak link’. Are you Pattinson’s publicist? You are attacking everyone who posts anything other than praise about Pattinson. I’m just responding to the reviews I’ve read saying the film is missing a plot and has a weak ending… I’m sorry that bothers you but they’re on the web and out for the world to see. If you have a problem with that then contact the reviewers, don’t attack commenters on Variety.

  3. KKS says:

    I sure wish I could “like” some of these comments!

    • Allen says:

      What Jane replied to you is the truth. You obviously can’t read or you’re just choosing to see what you want to see. Get a life please and stop embarrassing yourself.

  4. Lavendersings says:

    I am utterly thrilled that we are able to see more of Robert Pattinson’s talent. He is not afraid to venture out of the role of good boy vs. bad boy. He embraces his roles and makes them his own. He can carry an accent that’s sounds very much like the accents in the places he is suppose to be from and not many actors do that. He is not afraid of being part of the story and not necessarily the star of the story. I have a very strong feeling he has much more to show us as an actor and whatever other avenues he pursues. I thing he has just begun.

  5. Robert Pattinson is an intelligent and talented young man, and being easy on the eyes doesn’t hurt either. I am enjoying watching him build an impressive film career.

  6. Sam says:

    Pattinson is taking on diverse roles and seems to be doing fine. This is a great review of his work. As a fan, I hope they are not just ” baity” roles for the shock factor. Like the Disney actors do when they grow up and feel compelled to change their image. They take highly-sexualized, drug and violence filled roles with a totally different physical appearance to prove they have grown up as actors and individuals. Critics and everyone goes “WOW! a tour-de-force performance, like we never seen her/him before, blah, blah, blah…”

  7. J Chesney says:

    Dela, did I miss something here? Is Pattinson supposed to spend his life with “her” only making movies with or approved by “her”? I believe this review was based on a script, direction and action having nothing to do with “her”.

    At odds with you (I know that’s a shock), I have found Pattinson’s film choices to be interesting and career evolving. “Twilight” was a worldwide success due to teenage buying and staying power, but it did introduce us to Pattinson’s potential. His other choices “Remember Me” (which I especially enjoyed), “Water for Elephants” (where he outperformed the lead actress by a mile) and then “Cosmopolis” (where if any scenes had been been, in your words, “left on the cutting room floor”, there would have been no movie) have shown a smart and calculated move toward improve his acting skills and broadening his audience. He seems to be consciously choosing to work with respected directors and highly regarded actors, and it shows in his work. He also seems to be a well respected, level-headed, sweet guy that loves what he is doing. Why is that so hard to grasp for some people?

    Bravo Mr. Pattinson! I enjoy following your work choices. The last actor whose career I followed with such interest was Johnny Depp, and while lately he has hit a snag, I have so enjoyed most of his career choices.

  8. Dela says:

    This is far from a block buster movie. These two main actors must really be disparate for a pay check. Why a movie like this is even at Cannes baffles one. Pearce is far too good n actor for this type of junk. As for Pattinson , well he is a huge disappointment . Most of his work either fell on the cutting room floor or never made it to the silver screen , straight to late cable TV. This actor seems to navigate toward nudity, sex and violence in the films he has chosen. Quite frankly since the break up his career is in a tail spin. That great chemistry that was in Twilight is gone. He is not much without her. Hope he realizes that his inflated ego is killing him.

    • Allen says:

      Are all Kristen Stewart fans morons? Why would the career of this obviously talented young man have any bearing on your life? He obviously dumped her when she slept with that married father of two, so why would a fan of hers have any interest in his career success? Maybe it’s the fact that her career is in the gutter while award winning directors are wanting to work with him. Are these fans of hers really this bitter and insane? How sad for their families.

    • Gwen says:

      Dela: Your comment is laughable, absurd, and your true motives are quite transparent. The man is 28 years old, has two movies showing at Cannes, and prestigious projects both completed and in the near future that are almost too numerous to list. If that is a career in a “tail spin,” what on earth would qualify as success? And anyone paying attention can see that his ego is not inflated, quite the opposite. His humility is remarkable, given the amount of attention and adulation he receives.

    • rain says:

      Dela: I hope your family and friends do an intervention with you soon…I’m concerned about your mental and physical well being. Oh and don’t worry about Rob and Kristen…they’re wealthy, successful, working with A list directors, producers and actors, and thankfully do.not.know.you.

    • Jocasta says:

      Dela, I might actually laugh at your comments if I thought it was acceptable to mock the ignorant. I am not sure what kind of fantasy-infested alternative universe you inhabit, but you seem to carry some overwhelming, reality-clouding 200-pound chip on your shoulder in regard to Mr. Pattinson, the origins of which I can only assume lead back to a particular event in his personal life (“the breakup”) that was played out on the public stage. You come across in your post as if you personally were the one Mr. Pattinson broke up with, like a lover scorned.

      You display an abject talent for misrepresenting facts. Let me enlighten you to a few truths you may not want to confront for fear they will shatter your imaginary narrative:

      1. The Rover is a small indie film with a typical indie budget. Since when does a film have to be a “block buster” to be successful? Smart scripts, talented acting, expert directing, these make a successful film. You also display profound ignorance of the types of films typically screened at Cannes, which are not usually “block busters”, but films that play well to the art house/indie crowd, people who appreciate cinematic excellence and story-telling, not superhero spandex fluff.

      2. The only work of Mr. Pattinson’s that fell on the cutting room floor was his appearance in the alternate ending of Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair, his very first film 10 years ago. As for his other films, every one of them have screened in theaters (with the exception of three early ones that were made specifically for UK or European TV), many to critical acclaim and financial success. None of his feature films went straight to late night cable as your fantasy would have others believe. And every theatrical film made a profit.

      3. Most films today contain some level of “nudity, sex and violence”. I don’t understand why this is something negative? Almost every successful actor has been in films that would fall under such a broad-brushed description, and most likely the very same could be said about actors (or actresses…) who you like. So either this is an invalid argument, or you only go to see G-rated family films.

      4. What evidence do you have to support your claim that “his career is in a tail spin”? He has very recently worked with acclaimed directors like David Michod, Werner Herzog, Anton Corbijn and David Cronenberg (twice). He is set to film with James Gray, Brady Corbet and James Marsh. Olivier Assayas has mentioned in several interviews that he will be working next with Mr. Pattinson, there is a potential he will work with Harmony Korine in the near future, and no doubt he has many undisclosed irons in the fire. The man has two films in official screenings at Cannes. By what standards does all of this equate to a career in a tail spin?

      5. Your last three sentences betray you and your motives.

    • Jim says:

      Guy Pearce is one of the finest actors working in movies today. As I understand it David Michod, another master visionary, had him in mind when developing the script. To say “he could do better” is not at all accurate. I haven’t seen much of Rob Pattinson’s work but a quick Google search suggests he is moving well beyond the Twilight universe. As for your critique of nudity, sex, and violence all those things make up real life. Actors should not shy away from tough subject matter to be more commercial. I’m rather sure Pattinson is happier with reviews like these instead of the heckling he received for the vampire franchise. This is a Variety review of The Rover not a Twilight remembrance piece.

      I have to ask, wouldn’t your time be better served improving your poor grammar skills?

  9. lol says:

    ”An oasis of humanity”,it’s very nice sentence.Thanks for your rewiew.

  10. bettybmusing says:

    Awesome ! :-)

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