“Life isn’t fair” is a well-known and rarely disputed maxim. As our awareness of the world grows, we learn this lesson. David Michôd’s The Rover hits this point with the power of a gunshot. His post-apocalyptic wasteland has the same brutality we’ve come to expect from the genre, but with an unnerving quiet and weary disconnect that gives power to the unrelenting nihilism. Stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson ground the picture with their unsettling performances, and while the movie’s tone may be draining, it’s never tedious.
The film takes place in Australia, “Ten years after the collapse.” When his car is stolen by a band of criminals looking to make a getaway from their heist, Eric (Pearce) pursues the men across the desolate landscape. Although the criminals manage to escape, Eric comes across Rey (Pattinson), who was injured in the robbery and left behind by his brother, Henry (Scoot McNairy). Eric takes Rey as a hostage, and forces the simple-minded young man to track down his brother so Eric can reclaim his car and get his revenge. However, as the two men journey towards their destination, Eric’s cold-blooded attitude begins to influence the hapless Rey.
The post-apocalyptic film posits that once mankind has lost everything, it will feel free to do anything, and that “anything” is usually ugly and selfish. Rather than settle on this familiar point, Michôd takes it one step further and shows that since universe is inherently indifferent, mankind may as well follow suit. Eric has learned that external retribution is a myth, and the only kind of justice comes from personal action. More disturbing is that if nothing is just, then everything is permissible, and the only limits are what a man sets for himself. The film lulls us into believing that Eric might be determined but fair, but then shocks us awake as we learn that he’s not some proud loner. He has ice water in his veins, and he can shut off his sympathy with the squeeze of a trigger.
Guy Pearce continues to be one of the best actors of his generation, and one who deserves far more widespread acclaim than he receives. From the opening shot, he holds us with his quiet intensity. The depth and complexity of his performance is remarkable. Eric is ruthless, but unpredictable. He doesn’t have a code, but he’s not an outright sociopath. He’s as merciless as the world around him, but has the wherewithal to recognize his disturbing behavior. Pearce says all of this with minimal dialogue; we can read it on his face when he allows us a glimpse behind his enigmatic gaze. Pearce also has the generosity not to get lost in his own performance by recognizing Rey as Eric’s foil and the only thing that could possibly budge the weary man’s grim demeanor.
I find it incredibly encouraging that Pattinson is seeking to challenge himself post-Twilight Saga. Rather than launch into finding a new franchise, he’s placed his trust in uncompromising directors like Michôd and David Cronenberg. Rey is a bold performance, and while his stammering delivery is a bit overdone (it feels like he’s always on the verge of saying “Tell me about the rabbits, George”), he still strikes the right balance with Pearce, and tactfully plays into the story’s larger purpose.
When the movie opens by telling us about “The Collapse”, we know it’s the apocalypse, but the term could also apply to Eric. Early in the film, Eric has the opportunity to at least offer a peaceful resolution with the criminals. Instead, he remains taciturn, mysterious, and dead-eyed. Eric could attempt a fair trade, but justice is a worthless value, and he’s ahead of the curve. When he tries to purchase fuel or guns, he’s told his Australian money is no good, and the vendors will only accept U.S. dollars. “It’s paper! It’s worthless!” Eric angrily replies. What remains of society is living on flimsy, outdated notions of civilization when there’s no reason to be civil.
The film’s nihilism is pervasive, persuasive to Rey, and exhausting for us. There’s only so much we can take no matter how eloquently the point is made. The music is haunting, the cinematography is striking, and although the movie is oppressive, it’s thoughtful and distinct. Michôd’s follow up to his directorial debut, Animal Kingdom, is just as disturbing if not more so. It hits upon the same cruelty and rips apart notions of loyalty and justice. The filmmaker is unforgiving, but never petulant.
Life isn’t fair. We know this. The Rover makes us feel it.