The Future as a Futureless Present
The Rover opens with a title card situating the film “ten years after the Fall,” but this time marker means nothing to us. When did the Fall occur, and how did it happen? What were the circumstances that reduced civilization to a smattering of shanties spread along sun-scorched blacktop, that turned man into a breed of animal that would kill its own kind over a stolen car? No answer. The latest film from David Michôd, who helmed the acclaimed Australian mob drama Animal Kingdom, avoids all context or explanation. For that matter, it pretty much foregoes storytelling altogether, deriving its suspense not from the promise of narrative fulfillment but a state of waiting without expectation. The question is not what will happen or even how it will happen, but whether it will all matter in the end. Such is the condition of the film’s post-apocalyptic world, an environment so bleakly hopeless as to be nihilistic, a black hole so wiped of history or identity that it seems to exist in a perpetual present, coming from nowhere and with nowhere to go. We may consider one man’s murderous pursuit of his stolen Sedan a drastic overreaction, but perhaps it’s all he has left to do. Perhaps, living in a society as listless as this one, even the pettiest conflict grants him escape from the ennui of his day-to-day life, investing him with a sense of purpose, a chance to take vengeful action – however futile – against the nothingness of his existence.
The vision is a compelling one whose ugly violence and stark amorality evoke the work of Cormac McCarthy, the literary virtuoso who penned Blood Meridian, The Road, and the novel behind the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men. Like these, The Rover finds haunting poetry in the juxtaposition of man-made decadence with images of nature, emphasized through mammoth landscape shots that threaten to swallow the human players. Violence erupts swiftly and sharply – pistol fire that explodes, blood that spurts and rots in the midday heat – followed immediately by a montage of scenery, and we’re reminded that the agendas of man are at once a revolt against nature’s majesty and a complete insignificance, a mere blip in the cosmos. Revolting and insignificant – not the most encouraging words, but that’s exactly how The Rover paints mankind. The movie is a work of lamentation down to its musical score by Antony Partos, which groans and wails like a foghorn possessed. In moments when the music accompanies the camera’s trek through the desert wilderness, the barren landscape feels abstracted from the physical world, becoming a visual parallel to the erosion and desiccation of the human heart.
Much of the film, despite telling a story of indirection, fires with a grim energy thanks to the meticulousness with which Michôd and crew realize their vision of a fallen world. The thing is, a vision does not necessarily equate a movie, and here, the depressing drudgery begins taking its toll on us as the film continually fails to vary its aggressively pessimistic tone. Yes, this monotony is exactly the feeling The Rover wants to capture, except it works better in theory than in practice. By the time our (anti)hero Eric – played by a bearded, laconic Guy Pearce – hits the road to chase down the bandits who robbed his car, we’ve already begun catching his strain of post-Fall blues. Symptoms include numbness to experience, emotional fatigue, and hunger – hunger for a story beyond the skeleton of the plot, for characters that matter even if the world they inhabit tells them they don’t. Thankfully, The Rover boasts a strong immune system composed of sweeping cinematography, bruising brutality, and an evocative score, but even they can’t shake the pathogen that infects the film. This bug is borne on the movie’s very premise – when a film aims to embody the experience of emptiness, side effects run the gamut from awe to downright boredom.
If there’s one, truly vitalizing aspect to The Rover, it’s Robert Pattinson, whose Twilight-centric resume has recently taken a turn into bolder, more diverse terrain. In the movie, he plays the younger brother of one of the bandits, left for dead by the roadside after a robbery goes wrong. Picked up at gunpoint by a fuming Eric, he is forced to lead his captor to his brother, experiencing a crisis of conscience when he begins questioning why he was abandoned. This character, known only as Rey, is no Edward Cullen. Pattinson takes a wrecking ball to the heartthrob poise of his vampire days, becoming a mass of shifty eyes, slurred words, and all-consuming vulnerability. It’s the kind of character that elicits powerful and contradictory responses from us – sympathy and distrust, affection and distaste, curiosity and fear. The way Pattinson succumbs to the role with not an ounce of restraint turns Rey into the film’s most fascinating feature, the humanity that almost dispels the movie’s paralyzing gloom – not quite, but almost. In a movie where the prospect of a future is lacking, this performance predicts all kinds of futures for Pattinson, each better than the last. After a decade of wandering through various roles, he has still yet to land an Oscar nomination. Here’s to hoping he roves no longer.