Thursday, June 26, 2014

On The Road: THE ROVER

The post-apocalyptic Western plays upon the inversion of its setting. Where a traditional Western is always on some level responding to progress, the inevitable movement from a Wild West to our present day, the post-apocalypse goes backwards. There’s the same iconography: rugged untamed landscapes, solitary masculine figures, and periodic outbursts of gunfire. But instead of representing a flowering that leads for good or ill to modernity, it is sickly, decayed, frayed, beaten up and downbeat. The post-apocalyptic setting is hardly fresh, but this particular iteration can draw upon its genre roots to compelling effects.

It’s certainly the most, and almost only, interesting aspect of Australian writer-director David Michôd’s new film, The Rover. It takes place against just such a crumbled West backdrop, even if it’s not the American west in this case. Opening text tells us that we’re in “Australia. Ten Years After The Collapse.” We never learn what is meant by this “collapse,” a refreshing change of pace. But we certainly feel its effects. The outback has risen up, nature swallowing the sparse towns with plant growth and choking supply routes along crumbling shantytowns that clearly used to be quaint villages, roadside stores, and suburban sprawl. Here there is desperation without even a glimmer of hope.

Guy Pearce stars as a man who really wants his car back. It’s stolen in the open sequence that watches as a thief (Scott McNairy) and his accomplices (Tawanda Manyimo and David Field) crash their truck and continue their escape with in the stolen car. Pearce, a stoic, grizzled man wearing faded, unflattering shorts and a determined grimace, sets out to reclaim his property, giving chase across an unforgiving wilderness sparsely populated with criminals and those simply doing what they have to in order to eke out another day. Along the way, he finds the car thief’s brother (Robert Pattinson), shot in the gut and left for dead. Turns out, the young man isn’t too happy about that turn of events and is happy to help Pearce track his brother down.

It’s a simple plot, spare and episodic. The two men are moving inevitably towards the car and to a showdown of some kind. That conclusion seems likely to be bloody, what with the carnage that seems to follow wherever Pearce and Pattinson’s dusty road trip takes them. Creepy characters along the road include a grandmotherly madame (Gillian Jones) with a shack full of teenage boys, a gun runner (Jamie Fallon), a doctor (Susan Prior), and some military men (Nash Edgerton, Anthony Hayes) whose presence hints at something of a governmental force that exists so far away and so theoretically that only their big guns give them any power whatsoever. The people are malnourished, dehydrated, and suspicious. Even the encounters that manage to end nonviolently are fraught with tension and danger.

The fabric of society is as frayed and on edge as these men are. Pearce and Pattinson hold the screen with a grim smolder. Their performances are gruff, fly-bitten. (Was there a fly-wrangler on set?) Pearce moves deliberately, keeps his eyes deathly quiet, and isn’t answering any questions. Why is his car so important? His determination tells us it’s all he has. Pattinson speaks more, but with a gargled mumble that’s hard to parse. He’s earnest, naïve, and maybe has some mental problems of one kind or another. They’re an awkward match, held together only by their final destinations.

The film takes its two central performances, clenched and uncommunicative guys who fumble around for words when they speak at all, and radiates their inner pain outwards. Their grief and guilt pulse in the very landscape around them, vast and foreboding in Natasha Braier’s razor-sharp cinematography, Peter Sciberra’s austere editing, and the sparse, precise sound design. It’s all so very intriguing, but never gets beyond that initial level. It remains an interestingly visualized and imagined world, convincing and complete. But what happens inside it just doesn’t add up to much. In the final shots we finally learn why Pearce is so driven to reclaim his car, and it’s at once a mild punch in the gut and cause to say, “that’s it?” Throughout it is excellently evocative, but uninvolving. The more that happens, the more that’s revealed, the less I cared. Its setting is expertly drawn, but what happens in it disappoints. Individual details are impressive, but add up to nothing.

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