We meet a man. A still and detached man, emotionally and physically isolated. Shortly after meeting this man, his car, which appears to be his only possession, is stolen. So he gives chase, searching tirelessly for his automobile. But this is no ordinary chase. There are no cell phones, internet searches or police presence to help with the hunt. Why? Because David Michôd’s The Rover exists in a world 10 years “after the collapse,” as an introductory title card informs us. So throughout the film, we watch as a man (Guy Pearce) makes his way through a barren Australian wasteland, all in an effort to retrieve what is his.
Shot by Natasha Braier, the film has an organic look that shuns visual effects and wisely lets the setting speak for itself. The dirty, dry, and blistering days are juxtaposed with the cold and ominous nights. Through stark visuals, sparse and atmospheric sound design, and impeccable acting, the threat of danger lurks in every frame of the film. Much like Michôd’s first feature, the masterful crime drama, Animal Kingdom, you never know what the hell to expect in The Rover.
Most action films (and horror films, for that matter) are based on the model of action, break, build up, action, break, repeat. Those post-action breaks release the tension the movie has worked hard to create. This is why modern genre films rarely have an impact on me. They’re too formulaic in their delivery of thrills, consistently going for the quick shock, rather than the lasting suspense.
After a scene of violence occurs in The Rover, the tension does not break. Not for a moment. Despite the film’s purposeful pacing, there is never a release, even if the characters think there is. You never know what’s coming and where the film will go. The resulting tension amounts to a film that literally kept me on the edge of my seat for every minute of its duration. There certainly aren’t too many films I can say that about, and of the ones I can, The Rover ranks with the best of them.
Robert Pattinson’s efforts to break away from the shadow of the dismal Twilight franchise have been feeble at best. He has received faint-to-occasionally-ecstatic praise for his work in Water for Elephants, Bel Ami and Cosmopolis, but not from me. Thankfully, his work in The Rover is a true revelation. His Rey is angry, confused, and utterly fascinating. There’s a scene late in the film in which Rey (who clearly suffers from a mental disability) tries to articulate a question, but can’t get the words out, at least not in the right order. He repeats the sentence two, three, four times, tripping up with each utterance. There’s a self-aware frustration in Rey’s face that makes it clear that he knows he’s unintelligent. In this moment, I knew I would be confident using the words “great” and “Robert Pattinson” in the same sentence. For that is exactly what he is in this film.
Guy Pearce is one of the finest actors of his or any generation, with a command of the craft that is otherworldly. His character in The Rover is not a likeable man. Of the little emotion he shows, he conveys an angst that risks not being half as compelling as it actually is. That’s the mark of such a skilled actor: they elevate the material by absorbing themselves in it. It’s Pearce’s best performance since his nuanced work in Animal Kingdom, or, perhaps, his ferocious turn in The Proposition. I never once dared to take my eyes off him.
The Rover is, and will remain, one of the very best films of 2014. It’s a rare contemporary film that makes room for time, while also setting itself up for thrilling, unexpected moments of conflict. It’s a marvel of a movie, flawlessly designed and impeccably structured; proof that great, modern filmmaking is alive and well and, as always, waiting to be discovered. A