Don’t Hate, by David Bax
Before anything else happens in David Michôd’s The Rover, we see a title card letting us know that the events about to unfold take place in “Australia, ten years after the collapse.” Michôd begins by dangling this rich morsel of possibility, inviting us to wonder what events led to this near-future dystopia. It’s just a tease, though, because it quickly becomes clear that it’s not important. Thematically, this story could take place in any place and time that forces people to grow hard and fend for themselves. Maybe the post-collapse thing is just Michôd’s excuse to make a Western with cars in it.
In fact, it’s a car that kicks off the whole plot. Eric (Guy Pearce) parks and enters a saloon or, at least, some sort of roadside building that’s been transformed into a makeshift saloon. Meanwhile, three thieves, Henry (Scoot McNairy), Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo) and Archie (David Field), are speeding away from an unspecified crime scene and find themselves in need of new transportation. They abandon their truck and steal Eric’s car. Eric is singularly driven to get it back, for reasons that we don’t understand and that may not matter, and when he encounters Henry’s brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson), he uses the slow-witted young man to track down what he’s after. Eric’s relentless ambition makes him a worthy protagonist on whom to hang a tale but his brutal amorality keeps him tantalizingly out of reach of our full sympathy. Be warned, The Rover can be literally stunning in its violence.
Though it may not matter what happened to Australia before the film, Michôd and Pearce give us plenty of reason to ponder what happened to Eric. His stiff gait and blank gaze may be those of a man who is empty inside or those of a man fighting to keep the fullness of emotion in him from bursting out. Eric is a man who rarely says a word more than absolutely needs to be said, so questions concerning why he cares so much about his car and so little about people, including himself, are left to us to mull over.
Pearce is an actor everyone knows is great though they seem to spend very little time saying so. Pattinson suffers from the opposite conundrum. He remains relatively untested in roles that require him to be a performer and not a prop, yet his fame and his alignment with an oft-reviled franchise have led many to make up their minds about him too soon. He’s marvelous here. Rey is the only character other than Eric to have more than two or so scenes and Pattinson proves the equal of his co-star. Rey’s reduced mental capacity would be gristle for a lesser talent to gnaw on but, in Pattinson’s hands, the idiosyncrasies flower from the character, not the actor.
Michôd allows us plenty of time to study Rey’s tics and Eric’s clenched mannerisms. There’s very little ellipsis to be found in The Rover. On more than one occasion, Michôd and cinematographer, Natasha Braier, follow the characters on long walks toward fixed destinations. This builds tension for what will happen when they get where they’re going but it also illustrates a point. In this world, there are no shortcuts. One must reckon with what lays before him as well as what’s behind him. No one is going to help you on your way and there’s no one to ameliorate the repercussions of what you’ve done. Superficially, that sounds like freedom. But without the law to codify and manifest guilt and punishment, each person must contend with his own responsibilities. You may never go to jail for killing someone but you also have no outlet for how you feel about having done so. None, that is, except for the dull hell of your own continuance.
Don’t fret about being too bummed out by The Rover, though. Amidst the existentialist malaise, Michôd finds room for the gut-knotting suspense of his previous film, Animal Kingdom, as well as for Pattinson to sing along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” (the lyrics of which, “Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful,” may be a direct appeal to the anti-Twilight sect). Eventually, we even get some answers, especially when it comes why Michôd felt he needed cars and not horses in his Western. Cars, it turns out, carry more people, more weight and more memories.