Having proven, with the terrific “Animal Kingdom,” that he could take a potentially small story of desperate men and blow it up into something much grander, David Michod attempts something like the opposite with “The Rover,” taking the epic, sweeping backdrop of a post-apocalyptic, dusty Australian desert, and turning in a tiny two-hander road movie, that is as spartan as its predecessor was operatic. It’s a mark of just what a talent the director is, then, that he can, on the evidence of this morning’s Cannes press screening, turn in such distinctive and compelling work in either register. Because “The Rover” which admittedly plays right into our wheelhouse, is a fascinating movie, flawed but occasionally brilliant, and it’s also not at all the film we were expecting. Bleak, brutal and unrelentingly nihilist, and with only sporadic flashes of the blackest, most mordant humor to lighten the load, it feels parched, like the story has simply boiled away in the desert heat and all that’s left are its desiccated bones. In a good way.
A terse opening title reveals to us that it’s now ten years after “the collapse” as a nameless man (our press notes call him Eric but we don’t remember the name ever actually being mentioned) played by Guy Pearce in grimeface and scraggly beard, stops at a roadside shack for rest. The long, wordless opening, lingering on Pearce’s expressionless face is jarringly interrupted by a “Reservoir Dogs”-like scene in a speeding truck in which three men are escaping from the scene of a crime. One of them, Henry, played by Scoot McNairy, is wounded in the leg and is protesting about his dimwitted brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) who was shot in the stomach and abandoned by the crew to die at the scene. It causes an argument, which in turn causes a crash. In the first example of the film’s boldly dry wit, we see that crash happen through the window of the shack where Eric sits, underlining the dumb-luck nature of all of the following events: their truck stalling, the men steal Eric’s car, which turns out to have been a bad decision for all of them, to put it mildly. For reasons we don’t understand until the absurdist but oddly satisfying reveal at the end, the ruthless, unstoppable Eric is absolutely intent on getting his car back whatever the cost -- and the cost will be bloody. Encountering the wounded Rey, Eric gets him patched up so that he can lead him to Henry, but along a long road strewn with corpses of the people they kill without compunction (but not without remorse) their relationship evolves into something fractionally different from the abductor/hostage note it starts out on.
We say fractionally, because the arc of change the characters undergo is minute and brilliantly underplayed by the actors; Pearce is reliably riveting as the totally stonefaced Man With No Name Except Maybe Eric, and Michod exploits his charisma for all its worth in the many extended takes of his inscrutable, unreadable mien, while Pattinson, who we were initially worried might be too tic-laden to fully convince, actually turns in a performance that manages to be more affecting than affected. It’s certainly the best we’ve seen him deliver, despite the rather standard-issue-halfwit yokel accent and the actor commits to it wholly. The contrast between these men, Pattinson as twitchy as Pearce is impassive is marked and its in the space between the two, punctuated by bursts of gunfire, that the film really lives.
But the drawbacks of this stripped down approach are that flaws are magnified in the end result--there’s nowhere for them to hide. And so we did spend a while wondering why the men don’t simply give Eric his car back, when it becomes apparent that their truck is working again, and is indeed a faster and more practical vehicle for their needs. And sometimes the dialogue is so terse as to almost be a little comical, with Eric responding to most questions by repeating his own question, and then only after a long silence. And it must be said that the film, despite its bloodiness (a lot of brains splatter a lot of walls) and the kinetic nature of the road movie format, is actually very slow, and may try the patience of viewers expecting a more traditionally propulsive narrative. In fact, at times, whether we’re encountering some of the colorfully-cast side characters who populate this dusty vision of hell, or building a picture of the ‘rules’ of this lawless land or (most likely) attempting to sift through scenes and episodes to piece together what it all means, it can feel like Michod too is searching; like he is in the process of looking for a film he only sometimes really finds.
But does that even matter? Is that perhaps part of the point? The film’s distinctly despairing, existentialist bent might suggest that looking for it to mean something profound is itself a futile and rather absurd pursuit. Yet again, against a backdrop of so much emptiness, the tiny flicker of humanity that sparks up between Eric and Rey feels momentous, and saves the film, bleak as it is, from becoming depressing. “Not everything has to be about something” says Rey at one juncture, and it’s not too pat to suggest that Michod’s film is kind of about nothing, but it’s really about nothing--about nothingness and abgenation and a world that pointlessly goes on existing in the absence of compassion or empathy. Accompanied by an eclectic score of drones and electronic pulses interrupted by some incongruous tracks (including a very funny, slightly meta use of “Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful” as hummed-along-to by Pattinson) the story Michod and Joel Edgerton co-conceived, all the way back before “Animal Kingdom” may not quite reach the heights of that crime saga, but it arguably fulfills another important function: it shows Michod can work with other genres and textures, and still make a film that is unmistakably his, and that is how auteurs are made. [B+]