The Rover

Way beyond Thunderdome

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Future Australia bears a striking resemblance to the American West of Spaghetti westerns: It’s all heat and dust and stinging sand scouring tin and brick buildings back into the ground while natural-born sociopaths terrorize the weak, which is to say anyone who’d think twice about killing a man for his boots or his car or his small stash of canned goods or just because. Apparently some vestige of centralized government remains in place, but where that place might be is unclear.

Down these mean roads roves a man who is not himself mean, though you wouldn’t know it at first glance: Eric (Guy Pearce), once a farmer and family man and now a scruffy loner in khaki shorts and a dirty button-down shirt that hint at some long-gone normal, lives out of his car and measures his days in tin-roofed gin shacks, Asian bar girls and trouble avoided. That is, until a wild bunch of blood-crazed outlaws looking to ditch the car they just used in a badly botched heist decide to take his. The dead-eyed intensity with which he pursues his stolen beater hints at more than practical anger—could it be the car he owned before the end of the world as he knew it?—but The Rover isn’t about explanations—Eric just wants his damned car back and that’s all you need to know.

And yet Eric’s quest for his car is the catalyst that sparks his dead heart back to life: It leads him to discover the battered and bleeding Rey (Robert Pattinson, of the Twilight series) by the roadside. Instead of leaving the younger man to die, Eric scoops him up and tends to his injuries, and agrees to help Rey (whose hard-case veneer doesn’t for one minute hide the fact that he’s nowhere near tough enough to fend for himself in this nasty new world) look for his older brother Henry (Scoot McNairy), despite the fact that it was Henry who left him to the wolves during a heist gone bad. And as it happens, he’s also the bastard whose gang boosted Eric’s car—nothing good can come of this, and nothing good does.

Like Animal Kingdom, The Rover is a tough little picture that draws deeply on Australia’s Ozploitation history without succumbing to the gleeful depravity of its golden years. Instead, The Rover is a clear-eyed investigation into the possibility of retaining hope, kindness and simple human decency in a Darwinian nightmare world that counters every gentle impulse or action with a brutal beat-down. Only the pitiless survive, and the fact that both Eric and Rey retain a spark of conscience is nothing but a disadvantage, assuming they want to keep living.

It’s no surprise that Pearce, veteran of films ranging from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to The Hurt Locker, is more than capable of playing the damaged, forged-in-fire Eric, submerging his still formidable good looks under a layer of stubble and dirt and transforming the restless intelligence swimming behind his ice-blue eyes into a predatory alertness. He isn’t looking for trouble, but he’s the first to know when it arrives. The surprise is Robert Pattinson, whose teen-dream appeal in the Twilight movies all but obliterated his perfectly respectable past as a serious young actor working his way up through the ranks. He’s remarkably persuasive as Rey, who was made by this grim new world without ever being thoroughly of it; he’s still a work in progress, haunted by memories of a time when life was more than an endless tooth-and-claw struggle and unable to kill without conscience, but taught by Henry, to whom he’s devoted, that caring is cowardice. And perhaps the cruelest lesson of The Rover is that the primordial desire to live trumps all.

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