The Rover is a long, ugly slog through blood, sweat and dust. A tale of post-apocalyptic life in the Australian outback, it finds a grizzled and graying Guy Pearce searching for his stolen car and killing anyone who gets in his way. The film’s desolate setting and its outlaw lead character spark immediate thoughts of Cormac McCarthy; it’s a sort of hybrid of No Country for Old Men and The Road. But as much as writer-director David Michôd cops McCarthy’s ambiance, he forgets to add stakes, depth of character, or even a shred of humanity. It’s an exercise in pure nihilism.
The film opens with quasi-cryptic text: “Australia – Ten Years After The Collapse.” Of course we never find out what The Collapse was or what caused it, because this is the sort of movie that mistakes its own flabby storytelling for subtlety. The only hint we get is when Pearce tries to buy fuel with Australian currency, only to find that American dollars are all anyone will accept. What’s the difference, says Pearce (whose character, according to IMDb, is called Eric, though I can’t recall his name coming up in the movie). It’s all just paper, after all; it’s worthless. Gold standard libertarians in the audience may nod sagely, but Pearce’s complaint doesn’t explain why the outback has turned into the wild, wild west.
After the vague opening is the theft of Pearce’s car by a gang of survivalists. We learn that one member was left behind after a shootout, and he turns up, alive but wounded, in the person of Robert Pattinson. Pattinson’s performance is the sole bright spot in this muck; he plays Ray, the developmentally-challenged brother of one of the survivalists. We see Pattinson trying to prove himself as an actor whose abilities lie beyond the realm of the Twilight series, and he succeeds in spite of the dreadful material he’s given. One excruciating shot has a forlorn-looking Ray singing weakly along to “Pretty Girl Rock” as he lies bleeding in a parked car. The scene is so bizarre and out-of-place that you wonder if Michôd shot it as a joke, its inclusion the result of a cruel joke played by a disgruntled editor.
Most of the movie involves Eric forcing Ray at gunpoint to lead him to Ray’s brother, and therefore to the car. As you can imagine, the simple Ray falls easily into Stockholm Syndrome. He springs Eric from an improvised-looking prison, forgetting briefly that Eric’s only interest in Ray’s survival is tied to the car. Furthermore, we find that Ray has more than enough American money to get by on his own. We gather that Ray wants the chance to confront his brother for leaving him to die, but why he would want to take that journey with the crazed, ruthless Eric is beyond comprehension.
Michôd’s script—from a story by himself and Joel Edgerton—is painfully lazy in its attempts to infuse the story with some sort of philosophical meaning. Eric delivers a standard “God is dead” speech to Ray, and I guess we’re supposed to assume that this wakes Ray up to the harsh nature of existence and gets him to see Eric as some sort of noble realist. It’s a tough sell; Ray is a little slow, but he’s not brain-dead. He has a natural innocence that Eric violates with his so-what attitude toward violence. When Eric confesses his past murders to a disinterested police official, he complains that the guilt isn’t half as bothersome as the fact that he was able to get away with it. It’s a moment of shocking hypocrisy, made worse only by a later scene where Eric murders more unarmed people, then sits down and weeps. The movie seems to be asking us to sympathize with Eric because he’s lashing out at the society that allows people like him to exist. That sort of pretzel logic might be interesting if the character was at least charismatic or fun to watch. Most of the time, though, Pearce just looks like a man who’s desperately trying to find a way out of this movie.
The film’s last shot makes explicit the nihilism and hopelessness that was latent throughout. What a miserable person Michôd must be to have such a negative view of humanity. And what are audiences expected to feel after this? It’s one thing to turn a killer into a protagonist; we Americans know a thing or two about antiheroes. But that only works if there’s something to redeem him. That can be his sense of humor or his specialized moral code or a backstory that earns him some sympathy. No one is redeemable in The Rover, and that seems to be the point. I guess that’s one way to look at human existence, but it makes for tedious, insulting, sadistic filmmaking.