There are a lot of things that will disappear once the tenuous illusion that we call society or civilization collapses. A lot of these items of illusory permanence are things that anyone would think of: drinking water, electricity, fresh food, law and order. Yet one of the most basic tenants of human society will also fall away when the lights go out, and it is something that many people claim they would rather do without – accountability. Civilization has created systems and institutions that make sure that transgressions and crimes are punished, and that there is a general sense that even if the concept of God is false and there is no cosmic justice, at least the collective heart of humankind cares enough to punish evil.
Of course this safety net is valued by those who live lawfully. More interesting, though, is the way that even transgressors can find comfort in it. Guilt is a powerful emotion, and without a society in action to mete out justice, someone wracked by guilt can find it impossible to atone and expunge the black mark of his treason from his soul.
This is your thesis, The Rover, and the way in which you approach it is the kind of grim poetry that haunts the memory and tugs at the mind long after the credits have ceased to roll. Like a beautiful short story, your premise is simple but your interests run deep, exposing and investigating ideas that some might otherwise wish to leave buried.
Guy Pearce stars as a man who is never named explicitly, who sits in a haze and sips what is probably alcohol while a car full of bandits flips over on the road just outside of his gin joint window. It isn’t until the telltale sound of a car being stolen reaches his ears that he is shaken from his torpidity just in time to rush out and see his car being driven away by these strangers. His reaction is instantaneous, almost instinctive – he pursues them.
This is the beginning of a subdued odyssey that will take Pearce across an Australian Outback scarred by economic collapse, filled with scared and desperate people who barter for goods with American dollars or violence. Into his orbit stumbles a young man who may be developmentally disabled name Rey (Robert Pattinson), a young man who happens to be the brother of one of the bandits (Scoot McNairy). Half hostage, half eagerly following puppy, Rey becomes invaluable in helping to usher Pearce through the vast expanse of nothingness that makes up the blighted landscape of the Outback.
Pearce is the center of this film, imbuing a stoic and seemingly directionless man with the kind of haunted gaze and crackling silences that speak loudly of the dark places in his past in which his mind still dwells. His quest for the car is hardly just about the car, that much is certain, and without ever saying out loud what the truth of his situation is, his demeanor consistently speaks to his state of mind. Something is not right, and it must be put right. The world has lost its sense of right and wrong, and in such a situation a man must cling ever tighter to the sense of what is correct within him. The world is a moral desert, and Pearce will do anything it takes not to die of his thirst for what is right and just.
Pattinson, however, is a true revelation here. His transformation into the disabled Rey is so complete and without pretension that he just about effortlessly disappears in the role. It is easier now for me to recall him as Rey and imagine him in his personal life as Rey than it is for me to picture him as any other character I have ever seen him as. Under his careful modulation Rey turns into a much more conflicted and complicated character than even Pearce’s nameless wanderer. His mixture of helplessness with sudden flashes of competence makes him unpredictable in action, but not in motivation. Unlike Pearce he is in search of a friend, a companion, anyone he can lean on, and who he can feel as though he is helping. It’s a sweet, nuanced, near-perfect performance.
The direction by David Michôd is equally as compelling as these performances. There is a stillness to his compositions, a certainty in the meaning behind the small moments in between the significant action. When violence breaks out, which it does often, each gunshot has the immediate and jarring impact of a sledgehammer hitting a box of dynamite. You become accustomed to the pervasiveness of the violence, but never inured to its horror. This unflinching stillness, powerful and painful attention to violence, and the oppressive air of some moral drive moving Pearce forwards gives you the air of a horror movie, one that depends on the heart of man to serve as the haunted house.
What moral principles have triggered Pearce’s stark austerity and violent drive? How does his past inform his present? What effect will Rey have on him as they draw ever closer to Rey’s brother and Pearce’s car? These questions drive your plot, but what involves us in your story are the characters themselves, brought to vivid life, and our petrified interest in the world around them, and world that has allowed for a moral corruption that can only be fought when someone decides that at least one tenant of decency must not be violated.
It is a hard thing to draw a line. It is a thousand times harder to defend it. You show that struggle, The Rover, and we are richer for it.
See you on the road,
Brian J. Roan