Friday, June 20, 2014

Australian Audient: The Rover

This is the latest in my 2014 monthly series Australian Audient, in which I watch one film each month made in Australia, by Australians, about Australians, then write about it here.

David Michod's 2010 film Animal Kingdom was among my favorite movies of that year, rounding out the bottom of my top 10. I've since wondered if I over-praised it because it was one of the final films I watched before closing off my list, but I'm pretty sure it was genuinely worthy. A gripping crime drama that never felt the need to soften its bleak view of humanity.

Michod's follow-up, The Rover, has that same bleak view of humanity, but with less of a sense of purpose. Which is half by design -- but also half as effective.

It's the apocalypse, and Eric (Guy Pearce) really wants his car back. Eric's a loner having a drink in a South Australia outback bar when a car goes careening out of control past the window. As this kind of thing is par for the course ten years after the collapse of civilization, Eric thinks nothing of it and goes back to his drink. He becomes involved, however, when three criminals (Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo) ditch the car they've just crashed in favor of Eric's. Realizing what has happened only with his car disappearing over the horizon, Eric jumps into the junked car they abandoned, which still has enough juice to be road-worthy ... and to follow in the direction they went. Without dropping a word about who he is or why he's so bent on getting the car back, Eric begins a single-minded pursuit that quickly comes to involve Reynolds (Robert Pattinson), the injured and simple-minded brother of one of the criminals. With Reynolds as his hostage, Eric is going to get that car back, come hell or high water.

When characters doggedly pursue the reacquisition of seemingly meaningless material items, it can be fodder for good comedy. See something like The Big Lebowski, where The Dude just wants his rug back. So it's inescapable that this potential absurdity hangs over the first section of The Rover, when it seems possible that the movie will still have a sense of humor, and that Eric may want his car back for no other reason than that it's his car, dammit, and no one takes his property from him. When Eric suddenly shoots an apparently semi-innocent bystander, however, it quickly becomes clear that this is not just a mission of pride. There's something in that car that is enough to kill for.

The intrigue about what it is, however, has neither an ability to sustain long-term viewer interest, nor a very satisfying payoff -- even if it's not clear that the payoff is supposed to be satisfying in a traditional sense. The movie moves from a space of clever minimalism, in which Eric shows a resourcefulness in pursuing his goal that is almost played for laughs, to something a lot more ponderous and pessimistic. As the movie starts to resemble more of a tragedy that despairs about the degeneracy of human beings in modern times, and feels more like a traditional crime movie-cum-western, it also loses the distinctiveness of those opening scenes. Eventually it takes on the tone of grimness for grimness' sake.

One of the reasons it feels less distinctive than, say, Animal Kingdom is that post-apocalypse is not an especially fresh setting for a movie, either in cinema at large or in Australian filmmaking. Mad Max and its sequels gave worldwide audiences a vision of Australia as a barren wasteland of junk and deranged lunatics, and a number of films over the years have come along to bolster that vision. It's an idiom that Aussie director John Hillcoat has been working in lately, with The Proposition being an Australian-set version of that (albeit taking place in the past rather than the future), and The Road being a version of that set in -- well, wherever. The fact that Michod is moving into Hillcoat's territory makes the film seem yet a little less original. Even though it's still a very spare film with nothing like your typical idea of Hollywood flourish, The Rover is a bit lesser for being as high concept as it is, for its yearning to be part of a genre that's currently overpopulated.

Surprisingly, it's an American -- or, a Brit playing an American -- who makes the biggest impact here. Although Pearce is doing quality work and has some very strong moments, it's Robert Pattinson's Reynolds who really steals the show -- and eventually accounts for the last bits of the film's sense of humor. Ever interested in putting more and more distance between himself and Edward Cullen, Pattinson not only essays a Southern accent, but also the mannerisms of a man child so dimwitted that he's only a few degrees north of mental retardation. This kind of Acting with a capital A can sometimes reek of effort, but Pattinson gives it a good name, and submits the film's most effective performance. The actual American present here, McNairy as his brother, also creates an impression in a more limited role.

The Rover is not what you would call a disappointment, exactly, as it does have moments of profundity and an eerie kind of beauty. It's just burdened by the expectations that come with a movie like Animal Kingdom, and the farther it strays from what that movie does right, the less it seems like a step in the right direction for its promising director.


July? I think it will be Alex Proyas' Garage Days. Really this time!

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