Eric is a bearded powder keg. He is more force than character, his short fuse adding tension to every encounter. Will his shouting end in an explosion of violence, or will he just walk away? We are never sure.
A scowling road warrior takes off in a bloody quest to reclaim what’s his. We’ve seen this before; Mad Max and The Book of Eli both feature post-apocalyptic wastelands filled with scavengers and crazies. But now it’s Guy Pearce’s turn. And unlike his cinematic counterparts, his character, Eric, is mortal. This is no martial arts genius, no gunslinging savant. He’s angry and he’s determined, but he’s first and foremost a human.
This still leaves The Rover fighting an uphill battle. Featuring a vulnerable protagonist is only the first step. Cracking the road warrior genre demands something new. For writer/director David Michôd, the answer lies in the talents of one Robert Pattinson.
In what is sure to get him serious attention from the industry, Pattinson has turned in a performance that puts the whole film on a new emotional precipice. His fidgety, mumbling Rey is the perfect counterpart to Eric’s “tough guy” schtick. Pattinson’s endearing Southern drawl meets Pearce’s coarse Australian ruggedness and the unlikely result is a complete portrait of sympathy.
Rey reminds me of one of my good friends. His subtle mannerisms come alive in Pattinson’s performance. Rey’s purposeful thought-processing is construed through full-body twitches and facial consternation, just as it is for my friend. For me, Rey was real.
But Pattinson takes this mimicry a step further as Rey instantly finds himself infatuated with Eric’s quiet, fearless resolve. He is trusting and quick to look for role models in the most unlikely and potentially unsafe people. The consequences of such dubious alliances, as Rey finds, can be treacherous.
Pattinson’s turn elevates The Rover above other road warrior films, but it is the creatives behind the camera who keep it there. Cinematographer Natasha Braier uses long takes to give us minimal respite from the oppressive, uncivilized wasteland. She cuts away infrequently, forcing us to follow characters as they walk from building to building, or drive from town to town. These moments are suffocating.
Michôd and his writing partner, Joel Edgerton, compound on the hysteria with circuitous dialogue. On his journey, Eric asks the same questions, makes the same statements, and gives the same orders over and over. Unlike a David Mamet production, however, these repetitious lines are not variations on a theme. Eric always asks these questions the exact same way until he gets what he’s looking for. He has little time for extraneous conversation, and even less for those who won’t get him what he needs.
Paired with the well-intentioned and easily-influenced Rey, their chemistry leads to several darkly humorous moments throughout The Rover. Michôd and Edgerton build on their range as filmmakers and keep the story serious and meaningful while lightening the mood with well-placed visual gags. In doing so, The Rover becomes both palatable and powerful.
If it weren’t for Robert Pattinson’s humanizing portrayal of Rey and some carefully-executed exposition, The Rover might be another tired addition to an ever-expanding roster of similar genre films. But his role reveals Michôd to be a creative of the highest order. His work on the excellent short films Spider and I Love Sarah Jane were exercises in tight, thoughtful storytelling, and The Rover follows suit.
Like those efforts, Michôd’s latest wastes no time in explaining the world in which Rey and Eric live. Instead, the story launches directly into Eric’s Sisyphean quest and the result is a magnetic meditation on life, death, and responsibility. The Rover conveys its message with a methodical plod, but it’s worth the maddening climb.
Movie Verdict: Win