Australian writer/director David Michôd’s follow-up to his brilliant 2010 breakthrough, Animal Kingdom, is a film of awful aftermaths. Set in a ravaged but still-recognisable “Australia 10 years after the collapse” – an event barely spoken of, let alone explained – it concerns men who have reached the end of their rope: road warriors with no history, or hope.
We first encounter Eric (Guy Pearce) sitting, staring, in his car as flies buzz around him, lost in a sadness beyond words. He steps into a grim Asian diner as, elsewhere, Henry (Scoot McNairy) and his accomplices flee a scene of unspecified violence. They crash their vehicle, and steal Eric’s; he gets theirs back on the road and begins a sombre car chase steeped in grim tension, the opposite of thrilling. An age passes before Eric speaks, and when he does it’s a mission statement as lean and brutal as he is. “I want my car back,” he tells them, “and I’ll follow you until I do.”
We cut back to the crime scene – all gaping wounds and guppying gunshot casualties – where Rey (Robert Pattinson) wakes, leaking blood. Like Eric, he needs to find Henry, his brother, so the pair reluctantly join forces, journeying across a desecrated desert landscape of prostituted teens and stringy Snowtown-esque scavengers (often played by local amateurs). At one point they drive past rows of bodies crucified on telegraph poles. Are they sacrifices, or scarecrows? In Michôd’s sparse dystopia – imagine a post-apocalyptic Sergio Leone flick or a naturalistic Mad Max – it scarcely makes a difference.
Cut from the same cloth, Pearce and Pattinson are off-centre leading men who make interesting choices – and much better thesps than their looks might initially suggest. Equally, McNairy, who was deemed too old for Pattinson’s part, is one of the smartest character actors around (see Argo, Killing Them Softly, 12 Years A Slave... even Non-Stop). They’re all excellent here. An innocent, despite all the bloodshed, Pattinson’s Rey evokes memories of Toby Kebbell’s breakout turn as the mentally impaired Anthony in Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes. Eric, meanwhile, is a grimacing ghost given a furious emptiness by Pearce. “I was a farmer, now I’m here,” he tells Rey, his backstory burning in his eyes, even if it never comes into focus before the divisive final scene.
Recalling Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ collaborations, and the film work of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood, The Master), Antony Partos’ abstract score lends proceedings an elemental melancholy. Often it’s little more than a high, atonal drone, but it evokes all sorts of distant trouble: strange beasts screaming in the night, the blast of a car horn, a didgeridoo.
Another Animal Kingdom alumnus, actor Joel Edgerton, co-devised the story with Michôd, and their dialogue is brilliantly stark. “Are you threatening me?” Eric is asked. “No,” he says, exhausted, “a threat means there’s something left to happen.” Even John Hillcoat’s rigorously bleak The Road (where Pearce popped in for a kindly cameo) had more optimism than this, so it’s no surprise that the best sequence, at the house of a good Samaritan (Susan Prior, also from Animal Kingdom), concerns the only character who cares whether they live or die. In an outhouse, Eric discovers cages of dogs she’s protecting from people who would eat them. He just stares at the animals, muted by emotions long buried.
With both protagonists killers, and the whole world gone to hell in a handbasket, nothing in The Rover matters anymore. Not money (“It’s a piece of fucking paper!” Eric tells a trader who only accepts US, rather than Australian, dollars), nor possessions (“What a stupid thing to get worked up about in this day and age,” says one character of Eric’s car quest), nor murder. Bereft of most of the things that bring a story to life – a past, a future, all semblance of consequence – it’s more mood poem than drama, an undeniably impressive yet oddly unlovable film that gives away absolutely nothing for free.
Futility has rarely been so expertly portrayed, but even at a relatively trim 103 minutes, it’s wearing to have to fill in the gaps yourself. There’s little between Henry and Rey – barely a dialogue scene – and though Eric eventually explains himself to an army official (“When are you going to say something?”), the climax of his character arc (if you can call it that) is underwhelming compared to the wash of despair that has gone before.
“Not everything has to be about something,” says Rey of a rambling anecdote at one point. True enough. But it’s equally true that Michôd can do much better. Animal Kingdom’s coda was shocking, and it spoke of stories yet to be told, and even The Road’s characters still “carried the fire”. Here, there’s nothing left in the tank except numbed nihilism, and nowhere left to go.
Immersive but meandering, Michôd’s latest features great performances and gorgeous film craft, but its pleasures are elusive, and if you can’t find them in the scenery or the score, you might not find them at all.