31 Days of Cinema, Day One: “The Rover”

For a description of my “31 Days of Cinema” challenge, as well as the complete list of films I’ll be watching for it, click here. I was toying with WordPress and by accident made it a page instead of a post, so it won’t show up on the blog feed, but it’s online.

I said Monday I expected to start off my month-of-July “31 Days of Cinema” challenge with a bang. To the extent that I did, it was a very muted bang that quickly settled into a brooding slow burn. The Rover, Australian auteur David Michôd’s (I do admire the Francophone touch of the circumflex above the “o”) follow-up to Animal Kingdom, is a minimalist post-apocalyptic eulogy where the first film felt like the second half of an epic Jacobean bloodbath. Not that I prefer one over the other. That said, I do think Kingdom has the edge, but Rover is far from a sophomore slump, and I can confirm that its opening is a solid hook. It’s one decade after an unspecified “collapse.” A man whom the credits name Eric (Guy Pearce) pulls his car up to an Asian karaoke bar, walks in and orders a drink. Three robbers (one of whom is the versatile Scoot McNairy, here underused) are on his route, fleeing a crime scene where they wrongly think one of their own, Rey (Robert Pattinson), was killed. Things go haywire, their wagon overturns, and they jack Eric’s newer, cleaner ride. Eric gets their wagon starting up again and pursues them. The longish car chase that results is focused more on strategy than on momentum, and this gives insights into character that lesser action porn would have abandoned, and prepares viewers for the tone of all to follow.

By chance, Rey—a man-child of sorts—encounters Eric driving his posse’s wagon, and Eric takes him hostage and uses him to track down his car and its thieves, one of whom (McNairy) is Rey’s brother. (Why is Eric’s car so valuable to him? It’s not for me to answer that question.) The setup of the caustic, duty-bound loner and his wayward but charming prisoner—two men separated by personality and hierarchy, who ultimately grow to bond and learn from each other—was a cliché well before we knew what Stockholm syndrome was. Granted, the two lead actors make the most of it and turn it into art—and for those of you who demean Pattinson for his franchise work, let me remind you that there are plenty of actors who started with artsy stuff, did some time with the industry’s “tent poles,” and went back to “art” with none of their credit lost. Just because Pattinson began with Harry Potter and Twilight doesn’t mean he can’t tango with indie juggernauts such as Pearce and McNairy; he can, and Rover is proof. Much of minimalism relies on acting and imagery that can evoke the poetry of what’s there: a madam who offers Eric “boys…[with skin] soft, like the inside of your arm” and fingers her wrist; a column of crucifixes on the roadside; cages full of dogs at a motel; a food store owner who forces Eric at gunpoint to buy from him; and a dwarf selling guns and playing mahjongg. Pattinson does match those evocations.

Rover’s theme is the dilemma of how to honor the dead—in particular, the dead whose deaths you feel, or are, responsible for. Eric is a cruel man, more so than an antihero, yet his cruelty emerges more from economy and a warring mentality than from evil, and Pearce’s grit and magnetism make him riveting. Eric kills plenty, yet he shows as much esteem and ritual as he can for his victims (he makes as much clear in a moving campfire scene with Rey), and he longs for the karmic justice that he knows he deserves. One would think an apocalypse ought to provide that readily. Here, it hasn’t, there is no catharsis, and that totality of deprivation—which comes with the nagging sense that Eric’s punishment is not only to live in despair, but to have to kill more—might be the film’s greatest strength. That, and Antony Partos’ music, which matches the film’s simmering tension and imploded Sisyphean vibes like a twin. If there’s another weakness I haven’t yet mentioned, it’s Natasha Braier’s photography, which is haggard when it should be taut and pensive, and which doesn’t do much with its narrow color palette and the graceful set pieces it just happens to capture. Oh, and there’s also that one abrupt soundtrack selection so jarring, I had to stop my video and exit full screen mode to see if a pop-up ad had opened. Then, I thought the particular audio recording was screwed up. But no, IMDB says the song is meant to be in the film, even if Michôd ought to have cut it. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you hear it. Man, that came out of nowhere.

Grade: B+

Tomorrow: we head to Russia to see who’s been diagnosed with The Asthenic Syndrome.

31 Days of Cinema, Day One: “The Rover”