A man’s attachment to his vehicle is time eternal. If you are male, you understand Kenickie and his ‘Greased Lightning,’ Arnie and Christine and of course, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. David Michôd’s new SciFi western, THE ROVER, takes this loyalty to a near-ridiculous extreme, as Guy Pierce tracks a group of thieves across a post-apocalyptic Australia to retrieve his stolen car. First of all, why is Australia so often the site of post-apocalyptic disaster? It must be the vegemite.
Anyway, the story is extremely light, and the film has been getting a great deal of praise for that, which I can’t understand. It does not seem to be particularly bold to have a near non-existent plot. But Tarantino called this writer/director (who is responsible for the film ANIMAL KINGDOM, which admittedly I have not yet seen) “the most uncompromising director of his generation.” I guess he refused to compromise on the idea of having character development. I’ve sat with this film well over a week, letting it marinate in my head, before I wrote about it. I wanted to see if some distance would let me appreciate the film more than I did when I walked out of the theatre, but the answer is no.
It’s not a bad film. It’s very well shot, the setting is spot on, and there are a couple great set pieces, but there is absolutely nothing to draw me into these characters. Pierce is pretty unlikeable. Gruff and one-directional, he is a cold-blooded killer, but lacks any charm whatsoever. He’s basically an unfeeling robot, and while that works just fine in a scene or two, it gets pretty dull over the course of the film. He has one moment of humanity, when he spends the night at the home of the last doctor for miles, who is taking care of everyone’s abandoned dogs. His interaction with this doctor is almost interesting, but instead of letting that develop, the movie quickly rolls forward after the car. His relationship with the simple-minded Reynolds (played by Robert Pattinson) is so underdeveloped that it isn’t until the 2nd to last scene of the film that you even realize it has changed. Which is a shame because Pattinson is acting his ass off here, the one shining light of character in this film. It’s not that Pierce is bad, he just has nothing to do. I can’t imagine what he read in this script that got him excited to play the role.
Pattinson, in contrast, is charming and funny, and disappears into this role, the brother of one of the car thieves, he is left behind at a robbery gone bad. As he slowly changes his allegiance from his brother to Pierce’s character, Pattinson fills every minute he is on screen with depth and joy. The always-fantastic Scoot McNairy plays Pattinson’s character’s brother and is unfortunately on screen for too short an amount of time to make much of an impact. Susan Prior plays the doctor, who I really wished had joined the group for the rest of the trek, because the film was severely lacking a female presence or viewpoint. It’s not that it needs a love story, but it someone willing to forced another character to actually discuss what they are thinking, doing, or thinking about doing. An old screenwriting rule is that Character is Story, and there is not enough character in the film to help fill out the story.
The biggest problem with THE ROVER is there is just not enough that happens to justify a feature. Entire sequences could have been lifted with little or no effect on the plot, especially a sojourn into an opium den and a chat with an ancient woman. The film really struggles to fill its time on screen, and would have been a far more effective 15-minute short than its slow 102-minute running time. The audience is asked to take this journey with Pierce, and no matter how many people ask him why the car is so important, he never reveals it (don’t worry, you find out at the end). He is the most communicative with a petty government agent who takes him prisoner, the one time we get a sense of the outside world. This is handled well, giving us just enough of the background to appreciate the thought behind the world of film. But it doesn’t matter. This film is post-apocalyptic, but it could have just as easily been set in the rural south, or frontier Alaska. The actual setting has no effect on the characters. I went in with high expectations to THE ROVER, and the film did not live up to any of them, except maybe Robert Pattinson’s performance. Is it worth seeing? No, not really. This film was made for $12 million dollars. A little indie SciFi called THE WELL just debuted at LA Film Fest, and I would be surprised if the budget was one-tenth of that, and yet it succeeds on so many levels, it leaves THE ROVER in its war-scarred wake.
THE ROVER opens nationwide, including in Austin today, June 20th. Read about THE WELL here: http://bit.ly/UCXWjs.