(David Michod, 2014)
What exactly is it that makes Antipodean filmmakers so good at post-apocalyptic stories? The Mad Max trilogy, The Quiet Earth...even The Road was directed by an Australian (John Hillcoat). Can it just be that the Outback is such a desolate landscape, or does it say something more complex about some aspect of the national character?
The Rover is another great Australian post-apocalyptic tale. Set ten years after "the collapse", it follows taciturn loner Guy Pearce in his determined efforts to recover his car after it is stolen by a trio of thugs fleeing a botched robbery. Dragging "halfwit" Robert Pattinson, brother of one of the car thieves but left for dead at the robbery, with him, they cross a landscape occasionally hellish in its casual violence and degradation, but also one that is darkly funny and stunningly beautiful.
Such a slight story relies hugely upon direction and performances to achieve some of the mythic status for which it strives, and director Michod delivers, his arty style never overwhelming of obfuscating the narrative. He keeps it simple - filming long tense scenes with uncluttered compositions in classic set-ups - two shots, some stunning establishing shots. The Australian landscape provides beauty but cinematography from Natasha Braier makes the most of that, and her work - twinned with a terrifically visceral score by Anthony Partos - means that this film is thick with atmosphere. This world is a different kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland; dingy, almost mundane in its abandonment of civilisation.
Yes there are guns and grotesquerie, but nothing quite so gothic as in George Miller's vision (which has donated more or less all of post-apocalyptic cinema since Mad Max 2 was released). Here are tired, sweaty, dirty people selling water and petrol in empty, run-down towns. Soldiers patrol the wasteland, unsure of what policies they are enforcing or why. Endless trains cross the desert from the mines.
Pearce's character begins as a mystery; a grim-faced loner who kills without hesitation, and seems ridiculously fixated on getting his car back. But the actor's terrific performance slowly reveals the character to us as the film goes on; here is a man broken by what has happened, suffering because of each murder he has committed, and finally, a man clinging to what little sentiment he has left. He speaks little save for one scene with a soldier, so much of his work is in long unbroken close-ups and we have to read it in his eyes. But there it is - pain, rage, a sort of angry desperation. His is a great performance.
If The Rover is unquestionably (and like many films in this genre) a Western, which even its title suggests, it is also a weird sort of buddy movie, intent as much of it is with the odd dynamic between the two men on a journey together at the heart of its story. Pattinson has the showier role, turning and nervously grinning his way through thickly-accented monologues as his character grows more confident and assured, somehow gaining strength from his relationship with Pearce's cold-eyed killer. But again, Pattinson finds depth there, giving the climax of the film some charge.
But despite the quality of the two leads work, this is really Michod's film. His precise direction is crucial; muscular and assured, it gives The Rover it's own distinctive tone and emotional feel.
This is a mesmeric, tense film which also manages to be mordantly funny and genuinely beautiful.