If you thought The Road was too maudlin and sentimental, then David Michod’s The Rover is for you. It’s like The Road if you took out the father-son relationship and doubled down on the desperate post-apocalyptic road misanthropy. It also moves the setting to the Australian outback, where everyone’s covered in sweat and caked in dirt and Guy Pearce looks like he let a blind Parkinson’s patient groom his head and face with a hand blender. There haven’t been this many murderous thugs wearing above-the-knee shorts since Two Hands. The beauty of killing people in short shorts is that you can hang brain while you hang brain. But while I respect its disdain for familial connection and its love of abrupt murder and exposed male thighs, The Rover never quite finds a replacement for The Road’s father-son story or offers enough action to make up for it. As a result, you get an awesome atmosphere, but not much of an entree.
The Rover desperately needs an ending that articulates its themes, but instead it sort of goes out with a gunshot and a whimper, which makes everything that came before it seem like aimless posturing. Which is a bummer, because the setting is compelling and the atmosphere beautifully realized. It looks so good, and some of the shots are so brilliant, that you really want it to be a good movie. But without a better articulation of what it’s about, Guy Pearce’s stony silences and extended pauses start to feel less like a character choice and more like the stand-in for a filmmaker who isn’t quite sure what he wants to say.
We open in the Outback, ten years after “the collapse.” Scoot McNairy and his wacky band of sweaty crims have committed some ambiguous crime and are fleeing the scene in the Holden version of Marty McFly’s pick-up truck. They wreck and get stuck on the side of the road, and, in a hurry, smash and grab Guy Pearce’s car, which happens to be parked right there. Pearce runs out from the roadside crapstand he’s been bivouacked in to find his car gone, then hops in their pick-up truck instead and manages to get it unstuck. Woohoo, car trade! Instead of being stoked about his increased storage and ground clearance, Pearce is PISSED. Like, chase-after-gun-toting-murderers-while-unarmed pissed. “Oy want moy cah back,” he drawls. Why he loves that f*cking car so much is the big question that compels the movie forward.
Eventually he hooks up with Robert Pattinson, playing Scoot’s little brother, who’s been wounded in the crime and left for dead. Pearce nurses Pattinson back to health, but not because Pearce cares about Pattinson, or life, or people, or grooming, but because he’s hoping Pattinson will lead him to the brother so he can get back his Shrimp-on-the-Barbie Dream Car.
There’s a kernel of a theme buried somewhere in here, about how much familial connections actually matter in times of desperation, versus connections with people who can actually help you survive. When you’re starving, do you want a guy with a bag of food or your brother? In that way The Rover makes The Road seem quaint. It’s an interesting angle, but you have to search for it, and Michod never quite follows through. As for Robert Pattinson and his Tibetan Fox face, I wouldn’t say his is a brilliant performance, but it’s certainly a compellingly strange one. You can tell he desperately wants this to be his 12 Monkeys. He’s all twitch and stutter and you can understand about fifty percent of anything that he says, just enough to wonder how this mule-kicked autistic redneck made his way to the Outback and also speaks Chinese. Perhaps that’s the point? He’s certainly mysterious.
I’ve already compared The Rover to The Road enough that I probably owe Cormac McCarthy royalties (you have to pay him in gator jerky!), but The Rover is actually at its best when it feels like another seminal McCarthy classic, Blood Meridian. Without the father-son moral core of The Road, The Rover desperately needs some of the macabre impressionism of Meridian, to be compelled forward by the gleeful absurdism of nihilistic grotesquery (totally my jam, incidentally). It flirts with it at certain points, notably in a scene where Guy Pearce breaks into a whorehouse where the madame asks him if he wants to have sex with a little boy, before he wanders off down the hall to buy a gun from a tattooed little person playing dominos with a pair of Asian twins while screaming “Stop whispering!”
Now THAT’S a scene. It’s incredible from start to finish, and it really makes you wonder what could’ve been, this hyper-violent, post-apocalyptic Twin Peaks car movie starring a mud-caked murderous road hobo. But when Guy Pearce pulls his piece on a foe and hesitates – pull the trigger or no? – his character isn’t developed enough for us to know if this is part of his personality, or if it’s just a Freudian manifestation of a movie that doesn’t quite know what to do with its awesome setting. It needs either more articulation or more absurdity and sort of gets stuck in between.
I don’t have a problem with nihilism, misanthropy, moral relativism, alienation, etc. (mostly I subscribe to Frotcast Bret’s philosophy of pragmatic hedo-nihilism). But you have to find glee in them. If nihilism isn’t gleeful, it’s just a drag. That’s why I loved (the David Michod-scripted) Hesher so much. It found the silver lining in meaninglessness. You can be sad and depressed when you wonder, “hey, maybe none of this even matters at all,” OR, you could do it while blasting Slayer in your van and taking a flaming shit in a rich dude’s pool. I much prefer the second one. The Rover flirts with greatness at times, but without a well-articulated theme to bring it all together or a lot more absurdity, it feels like way too much moping and not enough shitting in pools.
GRADE: B- (It’s an admirable miss, with a couple great scenes, mostly entertaining throughout and definitely worth a watch, but if bleakness and meaninglessness aren’t your bag you are almost certainly going to hate it).
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.