June 17 2014 04:54 PM

David Michôd's nomadic road film paints a dire picture of humanity post-collapse

Guy Pearce (left) and Robert Pattinson, in conflict

When the apocalypse hits, how will we survive? Disaster films try to answer this question by confirming the power of makeshift families, solidified groups of desperate individuals who find safety in numbers. Sure, there might be a bad egg or two, as witnessed in 28 Days Later and often on TV's The Walking Dead, but without solidarity, nothing resembling humanity would remain. The Rover envisions a much more cynical endgame. Making no such claims for harmonious accord between humans post-collapse, David Michôd's dusty and violent road film paints a devastating portrait of isolationism out of the barest essentials. 

Set in the never-ending Australian outback 10 years after civilization went kaput, The Rover equates loneliness to godliness through the character of Eric (Guy Pearce), a bearded nomad with nothing more than a car to his name. But as The Road Warrior taught us, working transportation is all you need when the chips are down. Michôd's strikingly lean plot kicks into gear the moment three criminals steal Eric's vehicle after crashing their own during a robbery gone south. Our silent cipher pursues relentlessly, and spur-of-the-moment decisions lead to equally rushed reactions, giving the film a stressful and unpredictable quality.

Early scenes reveal how physical movement transcends dialogue in The Rover, leaving the viewer to grapple with a volatile and Spartan worldview. The barren landscapes and haggard roadways frame Eric's single-minded journey, leading him into a series of brutal confrontations with people whoíve already established warped groups themselves. After securing a gun in the most heinous way possible, he captures the wounded fourth member of the thieving gang, a simpleton named Rey (Robert Pattinson) who's attempting to reunite with his brother Henry (Scoot McNairy) after being left for dead on the side of the road.

For this new pair, small tasks take on heightened importance, like securing petrol, bullets, food and, ultimately, Eric's car. Money holds no value, so exchanges are often dealt with in bloodier ways. The two men eventually form a family unit of their own, complicating the film's bleak outlook. Together, they challenge The Rover's primordial view of human interaction, and, over time, we begin to see a flicker of withered respect born from necessity. Pearce's performance hinges almost entirely on the way his eyes communicate intent, while Pattinson's gutsy turn forces us to see beyond his character's bumbling façade.

Tone also plays an important role in The Rover—which opens Friday, June 20, at Hillcrest Cinemas. Crucified bodies mark the roads like biblical billboards. Flies circle around every living (and dying) thing. Deafening, high-pitched music notes make up the score, and Michôd and cinematographer Natasha Braier use slow camera movements to apprehend a creeping, looming quality in the imagery. This approach slows the world down to nearly a crawl, letting the rotting surroundings make a profound impact on the viewer. Cages and bars are readily apparent, but the biggest prison of all seems to be Earth itself. Standoffs that might be stretched out in other action films are over within seconds, a bullet finding its mark more quickly than expected.

The pervasive menace might suggest that numbness has taken over for good. But if the harrowing final moments prove anything, it's that Eric and Rey are far more complex than originally thought. Michôd's desire to paint the fall of western capitalism in such gritty strokes makes The Rover an unflinching film. It puts the blame not on individuals but the groupings they create in the midst of chaos. 

"All roads are bad," says Eric, but he might as well be talking about the destructive qualities of the post-apocalyptic family, and how its formation only creates an illusion of solace.

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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