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Non-Review Review: The Rover

The Rover isn’t quite a post-apocalyptic road movie. A title card places the story “ten years after the collapse”, but it’s never clear what exactly “the collapse” is. Buildings still stand. Trains still run. Telegraph polls are still connected. Cars still drive. Military units still offer some small semblance of law and order. This isn’t a world that has collapsed, it is the decaying structure of a world still struggling to stand.

The Rover is a starkly beautiful and haunting film, one that says a lot with only a few scattered words. It’s unsettling not in its portrayal of a world that is dead, but instead in its attempt to capture a world struggling to keep breathing.

As the world burns...

As the world burns…

What is most striking about this bleak future is how familiar it all looks. Rural Australia does not look too radically different from the way that it does today. There are still small towns and shops and communities. There is something resembling infrastructure. At one point, our protagonists stop over in a dingy motel, but one with clean(ish) blankets and functioning power. This is place that could easily turn up as a crime scene in CSI or a cheap horror movie. The future is not so different.

There is the occasional stark reminder that this is a dystopian future. Bodies hang from telephone polls. Armed individuals guard freight trains. However, it is possible to forget that The Rover is a post-apocalyptic film. That is terrifying in its own way. We like to imagine that the world will end dramatically, that there will be an exclamation mark at the end of all civilisation; that something may exist to draw a line under all of human history and firmly distinguish between what was and what will be.

It's the end of the world as he knows it...

It’s the end of the world as he knows it…

The Rover offers no such comfort, and is all the more powerful for it. It doesn’t seem like civilisation has imploded or collapsed. There is casual reference to some sort of central government in Sidney, and pop music plays on the radio. Characters seem to surround themselves in relics of the old world, trying to pretend that nothing much has changed. A small-town pimp surrounds herself with old-school luxury; a shop owner insists on going through a commercial pantomime; a crook falls asleep reading a paperback.

The driving narrative force of The Rover is the protagonist’s quest to claim his stolen car from the thieves who seized it after a botched robbery. This is a journey that claims quite a few lives, and leaves nothing but disaster in its wake, all in pursuit of some piece of the protagonist’s old life, some memory of who he was. The world of The Rover has not collapsed. It clings desperately and bitterly to life, as if the characters inhabit some grotesque distorted memory of civilisation.

He's gun done it now...

He’s gun done it now…

This is perhaps more tragic than a world where mankind has knowingly and wantonly embraced cruelty and barbarity – it is a world that suggests civilisation itself is just a façade to be maintained, a collection of trappings that can be ritualised and fetishised without being understood or embraced. The Rover is a staggeringly bleak film, but that darkness comes from its philosophical outlook rather than moments of harsh violence.

Although The Rover wisely avoids specifics, the implication is that “the collapse” was financial in nature. American dollars are the currency of choice in this futuristic landscape. Money is treated as a natural resource. When we discover that a local doctor keeps dogs locked up in kennels to protect them from would-be scavengers, she explains that she promised to hold on to them for their owners – owners who left seeking “money.”

On The Road again...

On The Road again…

Many of the characters in The Rover are still beholden to the idea of money. Although never explicitly stated, it is implied that the robbery setting all this in motion was a grab for cold hard cash. An old lady known as “granny” maintains her standards of living by selling flesh. Local authorities aren’t concerned with justice so much as justifying the money sent down from central government. It is all about the cash flow, maintaining the illusion of a functional economy.

The world of The Rover feels like a cargo cult built around the idea of money, without any appreciation of how such a system actually works. In light of this, the protagonist’s lack of interest in money is liberating, as he seems to realise that any attempt to maintain an economy in this apocalyptic landscape is just a delusion. “It’s only paper,” he remarks. Early in the film, he demonstrates the absurdity of prioritising economic gain over demonstrable power in this landscape.

A Pearce-ing gaze...

A Pearce-ing gaze…

The Rover looks absolutely wonderful. Director David Michôd and cinematographer Natasha Braier do a beautiful job at portraying a beautiful and eerie landscape. The Rover contains quite a few of the trappings of the post-apocalyptic genre, but recognises that seeing the familiar in that context is all the more unsettling. A dilapidated crack house gives way to a pristine bedroom. Ding motel rooms look like dingy motel rooms.

Guy Pearce plays the lead character, seemingly carrying decades of suffering and hurt bottled up inside. Steadfastly refusing to give his name, or to explain why the car means so much to him, Pearce conveys so much through his eyes and his body language – a man who looks like he has lived through the end of the world, and considers that more of a personal shame than a badge of honour. Pearce’s character is at once monstrous and sympathetic, alien and familiar – human and inhuman.

Road warriors...

Road warriors…

Pearce is ably supported by Robert Pattison, playing a mentally disabled young man who gets picked up along the way. It is a very showy performance, and one that could easily be seen as cynical or manipulative. Pattison, to his credit, doesn’t overplay it. This is a young actor trying to develop his skill and expand his range. Even if it is the most stereotypical element of The Rover, it is underplayed enough that it doesn’t distract too much.

The Rover is a bleak and beautiful and powerful piece of cinema.

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