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A really sound visual metaphor for this guy’s personality.

The Rover is a haunting, witty, and understated pseudo-prequel to Mad Max (well, not really but hey).

It takes place in Australia ten years into the collapse of civilization. The lights are still on, people still use money, but there’s a wearing down of things. A dusty and raw coating on everything we see. There are small hints of where the world’s going to go (more The Road than The Rover I’d bet), but it hasn’t gotten there yet. Lawlessness, the rarity of women, and the proliferation of guns and the willingness to use them… all hints at the true post-apocalyptic state to come.

This allows the movie to dodge the usual tropes while retaining much of the desolate imagery we’ve come to expect from post-apocalyptic films. Australia, in particular, is suited for this kind of thing and The Rover plays that to the hilt without ever feeling overstated. And that’s sort of the thing about this movie, really: nothing is overstated. Everything is confidently and precisely placed, timed, and executed.

The Rover uses its precision to surprise the audience. This is a very surprising movie, especially that ending. Some people may dislike the ending, feeling like it perhaps trivializes or sucker punches the audience’s investment in the characters and story. I will argue a different take on it. The ending is the conceit, as FilmCritHulk has been known to say. And The Rover has an ending that clicks everything into place: the story we’ve watched, the context and nature of the primary relationship in it, and maybe what this whole thing is really a character study.

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Every now and then, things are less understated.

The Rover centers on an unnamed vagabond (Eric is his name in the credits) played by Guy Pearce. He’s a mean, scarred, and intense motherfucker. Some less intense guys steal his car after crashing their own. They’re on the run from something, and obviously desperate. Eric can’t let this go and at first we’re left to believe that it’s pure orneriness that has him tracking the trio of gunmen.

However, there’s more going on than just one man chasing some horse… er car thieves (The Rover recalls the Western genre consistently). One of them is Henry (Scoot McNairy), an American who’s struggling with having to leave his brother behind after some kind of heist gone wrong. Rey (Robert Pattinson) is a halfwit, a seemingly innocent kid who keeps surviving in spite of himself. Eric uses Rey to track Henry, convincing him that Henry intentionally left him to die.

In spite of his natural hostility and intensity, Eric looks pretty good to Rey after saving his life and giving him a company and frame upon which to cling. A lot is clear about Rey early on, but as the two characters talk (rarely), you get a sense that Rey clings to stronger, braver people for survival. He’s willing, eventually, to help Eric do just about anything as long as Eric doesn’t leave him. There’s a skittish, beaten down loyalty in there and Rey is always stammering or glancing away when Eric talks to him, a sign of deference for a colder, harsher, and more commanding man.

On Eric’s side, there’s a twisted kind of bonding that reminded me of how Roland Deschain bonds with Jake or Eddie in the first two of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. Eric treats Rey like a sort of pet, like a stray (probably abused) dog that he’s picked up. This observation wasn’t immediate, but is completely validated in hindsight by the film’s ending.

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Pattinson delivers a pretty great performance in a challenging role.

By the end of the film, you start to read into the significance of just about everything. The only hand it offers you is during a sustained speech from Eric that tells you enough about him and the point of the movie to get something out of it even if you ignore everything else. Eric evokes something we don’t often hear in words in this type of movie. His pain is the pain of the suspension of all order, of all met expectation from a society that helps a man take responsibility for himself, that holds him accountable. His crime goes unpunished, making him a lonely and hardened man who is no less bewildered by the world than Rey.  It’s a Hobbesian notion, but most post-apocalyptic stories are incredibly Hobbesian.

Instead of addled wits or befuddlement, Eric is in a constant state of intense self-loathing and elemental reactionism. He doesn’t give a shit about life or death, the end of civilization (for him) having stripped that all away. His speech comes at a moment where, perhaps, civilization has caught up with him. He lays himself bare to a soldier who has captured him and the soldier’s reaction tells us that Australia’s army is no longer there to keep the law or to bring civilization back from the dust. They’re just glorified thugs now, sending captives to Sydney for unknown reasons (labour camps, I suspect) in exchange for the American money that now rules what’s left of the economy.

It’s the little things that tell you everything in this movie. Eric’s exasperation at not being punished for murdering his wife is complemented by his eventual exasperation at the demand for American money. There’s also that Eric is like the ultimate dog lover and his relationship to dogs, which is really about loyalty (his wife was unfaithful after all), is all over the movie foreshadowing that ending. Eric’s descent into barbarism, if that’s indeed what is happening to him, is therefore as much about loyalty as a conceptual binding agent for society as it is about the loss of accountability (a kind of loyalty) to any kind of order or law. Without loyalty to the law, and without its loyalty to him (the fulfillment of his expectation to be punished), he is a man adrift.

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And capable of stunning single-mindedness. It’s like watching a force of nature.

Other things that come to mind here past the assurance of David Michaud’s writing and direction are the film’s commitment to grit in its cinematography and especially its handling of violence. There’s a lot of gunplay in this movie and it all feels too real and too incidental to be something that’s meant to appeal the audience as a thrill. The violence, like the world it happens in, is a senseless thing. The authenticity of its details, the way blood and viscera are executed, underlines that. But even as The Rover challenge’s the audience’s comfort levels with its savagery and simplicity, it also allows for flourishes of surreal weirdness. Some of the characters and conversations are just odd. And, frequently, so are the musical cues. Not just the score but the occasional bizarre in-movie singalong. Still, even the weird shit is rooted in character, underscoring the bewildering world and that dazed single-mindedness with which Eric handles it.

The movie ends with Eric finally getting his car back. As the movie flows, you start to suspect that there’s a deeper reason, maybe connected to his wife, that he wants it so bad. But the film restrains just enough of the character to make you wonder whether it’s just pure, irrational territoriality. Anyway, he wants it back because his dead dog is in the trunk and he wants to bury it. There’s your big twist ending, a twist that you should see a mile coming, and that justifies the entire nihilistic movie you just watched in retrospect. What was a bleak view of one stage of the end of civilization becomes a tragic lament at what’s been really lost.

When everything kicked off, Eric was on his way to bury his only friend. Seeing the dog makes everything make sense for the character, for the movie we just watched, and for the senselessness (but, in the end, not nihilism) of a world without loyalty or accountability.

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