Monday, June 23, 2014

In Theaters: THE ROVER (2014)

(Australia/US - 2014)

Written and directed by David Michod. Cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo, Gillian Jones, Susan Prior, Anthony Hayes, Gerald Coulthard, Nash Edgerton, Jan Palo. (R, 103 mins)

"You should never stop thinking about a life you've taken.  That's the price you pay for taking it."

The Outback has been the setting of countless Australian films, and in the best of them, regardless of the genre, the vast, desolate region practically functions as a character. It gets one of its most unsettlingly sinister incarnations in THE ROVER, the latest film from ANIMAL KINGDOM director David Michod. Set "ten years after the collapse," THE ROVER opens with a stunning 15-minute sequence with the grizzled Eric (Guy Pearce) sitting alone in his car outside a shitty shack of a bar.  He goes in for a drink as a pickup truck filled with three quarreling fugitives--Henry (Scoot McNairy), Archie (David Field), and Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo) flips over, careening past the bar and coming to an upright stop on the side of the road. Eric realizes too late that they're ditching the truck and taking his car. Glaring down the road, Eric decides to get in their truck and gets it unstuck by what seems like sheer will and determination, and takes off after them. After some high-speed road games, both cars come to a stop. Words are exchanged. Eric: "I want my car back."  Archie: "I can see that."  Eric: "Give me my car back." Henry: "That's not gonna happen." Even with guns pointed at him, Eric fearlessly charges at the men and gets knocked out for his trouble.  He comes to and the men and his car are gone. He eventually crosses paths with Rey (Robert Pattinson), a slow-witted young man who happens to be Henry's younger brother. Shot in the stomach and assumed dead, Rey was left behind during whatever job his cohorts were pulling off. Eric, who proves time and again that he'll stop at nothing to get his car, takes Rey prisoner and orders him to take him to where his brother and the others are hiding out.

Part vigilante revenge saga, road movie, Ozploitation throwback, and dystopian nightmare punctuated by sudden bursts of shocking violence, THE ROVER has some surface similarities with John Hillcoat's THE PROPOSITION (2006), the great blood-splattered Outback western that also starred Pearce, but somehow, exists in a world that's even more bleak and nihilistic. Anyone can be killed at any moment in THE ROVER, and at any moment, the sins of your past can come back to haunt you. In his quest for revenge against the men who stole his car, Eric, the ostensible "hero," manages to leave a trail of bodies behind and brings death and tragedy to several people pulled into his destructive orbit. Michod asks a lot for the audience to get behind someone who's as much of an anti-hero as Eric, but as more layers of the character are revealed, there's glimpses of the man that may still lurk, however faintly, deep down. At its core, THE ROVER is a film about relationships, particularly the shaky bond that forms between and Eric and Rey. When Rey grows angry upon the realization that he's been left to die by his brother, it's debatable whether he comes to that conclusion on his own or if he's been manipulated into it by the misanthropic Eric, who's quite the killjoy with lines like "Who cares if he's your brother?  Just because you both came out of the same woman's hole?" These are two men who, by different circumstances, are alone and find some tenuous common ground in a dangerous world where a wrong look gets you killed, seemingly kindly grandmothers offer young boys for sex, and the scenic route through the Outback offers the tourist-friendly sight of roadside crucifixions.

Pearce has rarely been better than he is here.  With his constant snarl and his slumped right shoulder, he looks and moves like a wounded animal, and though Pattinson is sometimes a little too mannered, he generally handles his role well. I didn't care for David Cronenberg's COSMOPOLIS, but Pattinson, who reunited with Cronenberg for the upcoming MAPS TO THE STARS, continues to prove himself a sharper actor than you'd think as he seems to be taking on the most non-commercial projects he can to establish his post-TWILIGHT cred. To say much more would spoil the plot turns that THE ROVER takes, but it does offer a study in duality, not just with its two main characters, but also when the title and even the caption "ten years after the collapse" ultimately take on more than one meaning. Michod, cinematographer Natasha Breier, and the chillingly minimalist score by Antony Partos work together to create an atmosphere of suffocating hopelessness. You can smell the sweat and the despair.  Real flies constantly swarm around the actors' faces. The stench of death and decay are everywhere under the perpetually baking sun. In many ways, THE ROVER is an Outback-set Sam Peckinpah homage, not in a way that Eric and Rey are men out of their own time with nothing left to do but go out with their guns blazing (as with THE WILD BUNCH), but in the quiet ways of loyalty and family and when someone's word meant something.  It's not a crowd-pleasing summer movie for everyone, and you'll find the ultimate reveal either profoundly moving or dismiss it as completely hokey (one guy, a few rows back: "Are you kidding me?").  Eric is a total bastard and he's fully aware of it, but in a world where laws and a basic moral code have disintegrated and are never coming back, a man will do what he has to do to hold on to the slightest shred of humanity and dignity left in him. A love letter of understanding to the bitter misanthrope in all of us, THE ROVER is one of 2014's best films.

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