June 2014

Arts & Letters

The beautiful cliches of David Michôd’s ‘The Rover’

By Shane Danielsen
A very, very good director has made a pretty ordinary film

For Australian artists of any discipline, the outback is something to reckon with. It isn’t the barren earth exactly, nor the vast, great, towering sky; it’s something else. Patrick White knew it and so did Sidney Nolan: Johann Voss wandered and died in the same alien landscape through which Ned Kelly rode, a black box astride a cartoon horse. The author and the painter each understood that the desert reduces human concerns to an abstraction, and human beings to radically simplified versions of themselves.

For our filmmakers, the outback thriller exerts the same fascination as the western holds for their Hollywood counterparts. It’s a rite of passage: the genre that is uniquely and unmistakably our own. That David Michôd, the writer-director of Animal Kingdom (2010), has moved from the outer suburbs of Melbourne to a nameless, nearly featureless stretch of highway for his second feature is not so very surprising. Nor that the result is a narrative shorn of every extraneous element. More than most Australian features, The Rover (Sydney Film Festival 7 & 8 June, in national release 12 June) is a product of its environment: strict in its exclusions, determined to carry only as much as it needs to survive.

An opening title informs us that it is “ten years after the collapse”. Martial law appears to have been declared. Shopkeepers peer out warily from behind barred enclosures. Everyone is armed. Rural Australia is rarely a welcoming place (I remember once, in my wife’s home town, asking a middle-aged lady for directions to the local bakery. “Why?” she replied suspiciously), but whatever tenuous bonds once linked these communities have long since vanished.

Through this blighted landscape moves Eric (Guy Pearce), a grim, solitary figure whose visit to a diner in the middle of nowhere happens to coincide with the arrival of three petty criminals, on the run after an abortive heist. While arguing among themselves (there was a shoot-out; they’ve been forced to leave one of their own behind), the trio lose control of their car and crash. They abandon their vehicle and steal Eric’s battered Holden sedan. Infuriated, he sets off in pursuit.

As far as story goes, that’s pretty much it. Cinematic quests have been launched for less – the Dude, in The Big Lebowski, just wants his rug back – but for much of the film our hero’s single-mindedness invites bafflement rather than admiration. He has no gun and not much money; he’s but one man against three. So why this dogged tenacity? What’s so special, anyway, about this particular car?

To this rather rudimentary set-up, Michôd and Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the original story) add a single complication, in the form of Rey (Robert Pattinson), the younger brother of one of the thieves, who may or may not harbour a grudge against his former associates for abandoning him. Eric takes Rey hostage, intending to use him to track down the others – though the younger man, not exactly burdened by an excess of self-knowledge, seems to consider it more like a play date: two pals striking out in search of adventure. Before long (and despite Eric’s better judgement), they’re working as partners.

Clearly anxious to lay his teen heart-throb image to rest, Pattinson essays Rey as a stammering, garrulous man-child, reminiscent in function if not in personality to James Frecheville’s J from Animal Kingdom – another dim-witted sidekick to an older, casually violent man. Even so, I struggled to decide whether his performance was good or simply brave. With his crew cut and mumbly, down-home twang, he seems at times like a kind of post-apocalyptic Forrest Gump. (Though life, in this telling, is more like a box of shit.) Yet while much of the actor’s early dialogue is unintelligible, physically he’s never less than compelling, buzzing like a live wire through every scene he’s in.

By contrast, his co-star maintains an almost tectonic stillness. With his tangled beard and thousand-yard stare, Pearce’s Eric has the look of some bogan prophet; what he doesn’t have, unfortunately, is an actual character. He’s just white-lipped fury and terse commands (“Get in the car”), not a person so much as a type: the hard-bitten survivor, familiar from countless post-apocalypse flicks. Late in the film he’s given a speech to explain his backstory, but even this is exactly what you expect, so unsurprising in every detail that you could have written it yourself.

Like most road movies, The Rover is episodic rather than accumulative. The film is structured as a series of encounters, one or two of which exert a creepy fascination – notably, a visit to a kind of ramshackle brothel, packed with dozing rentboys and presided over by a madam so disconnected she seems to flicker in and out of the scene. Yet even she pauses to acknowledge the essential pointlessness of Eric’s mission. (“You must really love that car,” she murmurs dryly.)

This spooky, fever-dream ambience is Michôd’s preferred register. He favours deep-focus, tableau-like compositions. He uses the frame to its fullest – pushing in slowly on a master shot, cutting to a medium shot or close-up only when absolutely essential. The obvious inspiration is Stanley Kubrick, though latter-day acolytes like Jonathan Glazer and Paul Thomas Anderson are more appropriate comparisons. As in the work of those filmmakers, the mood is richly unsettling when everything clicks into place, and merely portentous when it doesn’t.

It’s a pity, then, that there’s a kind of will-this-do expediency to much of the staging. Why, for instance, would a man who has just seen two of his colleagues gunned down in front of him simply gaze in the direction from which the shots came, more or less waiting to be picked off himself? Why would another, a weapons dealer, possibly hand Eric – or any buyer, for that matter – a loaded gun?

Likewise, while it’s reasonable that the fleeing criminals would only beat Eric when he confronts them in the film’s first ten minutes – they can hardly kill him, or we wouldn’t have a movie – would they really leave him unconscious right alongside their car, so that he can come after them the moment he wakes up? Because he obviously will. (And does.)

Occasionally an artist has something like a dream, from which a handful of images and motifs emerge. They might struggle to explain what is meaningful to them about this reverie, but they are compelled nonetheless to re-create it. The Rover feels a little like that. Something personal and deeply felt – and beautifully made, for the most part (particular credit should go to Jo Ford’s superb production design) – but also under-written and indigent.

That explanation would at least help justify its advance publicity, which trumpeted the film as the latest work from “visionary director David Michôd” – a line which, I have to admit, made me pause. For one thing, it’s only his second feature. This isn’t Werner Herzog or David Cronenberg we’re talking about, artists with a substantial body of work behind them. Moreover, nothing in either Michôd’s short films or the excellent Animal Kingdom in any way suggested a “visionary” sensibility. He’s simply a very, very good director – a rarity in this country – with a handful of recurring motifs (insidious mother figures; slow-witted, passive young men) and an undeniable talent for choreographing physical action.

But he also has a weakness for the too-pat conclusion, and consequently the coda here feels badly misjudged: more appropriate to a short than a theatrical feature. (“Oh, you are kidding,” sighed the woman behind me.) It’s less a revelation than a punchline, the culmination of a long, perhaps overly obscure joke. Only there’s no one left to laugh.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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