Skip to main content

What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age.

The Rover
(2014)

(SPOILERS) David Michod’s Outback thriller embraces a tentative future vision of pre-apocalyptic, post-economic collapse. It’s gauged not so far from the original Mad Max, and, by avoiding population centres, it avoids answering any detailed questions about how this former First, now Third, World country malingers on. It might have been better if the general thrust of Michod’s story had remained similarly unforthcoming. For the first 40 minutes or so, The Rover is stark, striking, and elusive. It remains a first rate piece of filmmaking right through to the climax, but the tale wilts into something a touch too tangible and familiar.


Michod, who wrote the screenplay and devised the story with pal Joel Edgerton, drops us in on Guy Pearce’s Eric, a beardy straggler in cargo shorts who has stopped in for water at a derelict dustbowl station come store when a trio of hoodlums (Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo) steel his wheels. Eric sets off in pursuit of his car, and, after a set back (via the butt of a shotgun), links up with witless Rey (Robert Pattinson) to recover it. Rey is McNairy’s brother, left for dead at the scene of their crime, and knows where the gang is headed.


We don’t know why Eric wants his car back so badly, which makes his unmotivated quest existentially engrossing. Is it merely because that’s the kind of thing people do in such a degraded world? The Rover would perhaps have been more powerful if it didn’t furnish answers; if we didn’t discover why Eric has devolved to this ruthless state, rather than depositing a great info dump of backstory at a convenient interlude, and if he didn’t flip his boot in the last scene and show us exactly why he went through all this. The first half of the picture is superior for the its elusiveness and visceral charge, fascinating in the way it resists getting up close to its characters and reasoning out their behaviour and environment.


The plot Michon settles on is thematically engaged but not as tonally satisfying. Choices fall into place a little neatly and cleanly.  Hints have been dropped from the title down (is it Guy, full of wanderlust, is it a reference to a make of car, or is it all about a hound?) There’s the sequence at a veterinarian’s house where Eric looks meaningfully at hound in a cage. And there’s dumb, devoted Rey, who has been left by his former master (brother) and comes to the rescue (digging under a fence) when Eric is detained by squaddies. The point at which Eric has regained his car (and his dog), he considers just leaving the gang to their own devices. But his faithful new hound all but hangs out his tongue and wags his tail, persuading Eric to go inside and deal with those who stole from him. Eric’s depth of feeling for his pet makes a lot of sense; this is a world where it is easier to empathise with an animal than fellow humans (see also Mad Max 2).


Evidently the relationship between Eric and Rey is the core of The Rover, and the second half of the film is carried along by dint of the lead performances. But a mismatched dysfunctional buddy movie would have been one of the less interesting turns the picture could have taken after establishing itself. Pearce is customarily superb, essaying a character who makes Max Rockatansky look positively cuddly when he blows away a dwarf with the gun he cannot pay for. Pattinson’s chops will only come as a surprise to anyone who didn’t see him in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis.


The antic edge of the post-apocalyptic genre is glimpsed occasionally; there’s an echo of the muted rawness and palpable tension of The Road, in an environment where killing is a simple fact of daily life (“You don’t learn to fight, your death’s going to come real soon”). There’s nothing as eccentrically peculiar as The Book of Eli’s cannibal couple, but there’s a pervading air of moral turpitude (the grandmother pimping her adolescent grandson) and twisted invention (the broken down circus, complete with dwarf, suggests someone’s let Gilliam loose on the set). And then there are there are the rows of crucified along the roadside.


It isn’t until the army intrudes upon the scene that we begin to learn a little too much. And, if we start to thing about Michod’s new world disorder it beings to seem a little doubtful. Given the nature of the collapse one wonders why currency has any currency at all amid this lawlessness (and why US dollars should be more desirable than Australian ones). Bartering over basics would surely make more sense.


This Oz is a sci-fi informed mishmash, rather than one that wholly makes sense if you try and break it down. That infusion of Chinese culture over the space of 10 years carries the conceit of a post-Blade Runner palimpsest, rather than something thoroughly thought through (this presumably extends beyond too; Rey speaks Mandarin, so unless he is a savant, the Chinese also have a foothold in the US). The American characters have travelled to Oz to seek work in the mines, and freight trains carry armed guards, but it’s probably best it helps not to ask too many questions about the whos, whats and whys. Perhaps the state of the nation is best summed up by Eric, who asks his oblivious military captor at one point, “Do you know it’s over for you too?” Complete anarchy is inevitable, the only question is when.


Michod could no doubt graduate to big budget films with little trouble (he’s attached to a Brad Pitt picture, based on Michael Hastings’ The Operators). An early shot finds a preoccupied Eric drinking water in the rundown store as a jeep tumbles past the window in a cloud of dust. The violence is punchy and visceral (Eric is a badass), so – even given Rey’s particular moment of misconceived gunplay at a motel – there’s little resonance to Eric’s sub-Unforgiven wisdom (“You should never stop thinking about a life you take. It’s the price you pay for taking it”). Michod ensures the action is both thrilling and unsettling, however; in the early scenes particularly, composer Anthony Partos utilises discordant violin to foreboding and disorientating effect.


Eric’s nihilistic ruminations include coldly disinterring Rey’s rote appeals to a beneficent God and a similarly callous rejection of his faith in his brother. Later, he opines that what hurt the most was not the act of killing his wife and her lover but that no one came after him; no one cared. Michod shows the limitations of his palette when he gives his characters voice, and so directs his screenplay with more acumen that it necessarily merits. Likewise, Pearce elevates the proceedings with his wiry intensity (Michod loves shooting his rangy frame from behind, taking in a widescreen landscape). As movies on the verge of societal breakdown go, The Rover wields an immediacy that is hard to beat, but its thoughts on the ease with which we lose our decency and connection to others don’t reverberate sufficiently to match the surrounding craft.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
(SPOILERS) You see? Sometimes Oscar can get it right. Not that the backlash post-announcement would have you crediting any such. No, Saving Private Ryan had the rug unscrupulously pulled from under it by Harvey Weinstein essentially buying Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture through a lavish promotional campaign. So unfair! It is, of course, nothing of the sort. If the rest of Private Ryan were of the same quality as its opening sequence, the Spielberg camp might have had a reasonable beef, but Shakespeare in Love was simply in another league, quality wise, first and foremost thanks to a screenplay that sang like no other in recent memory. And secondly thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow, so good and pure, before she showered us with goop.

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

The Statue of Liberty is kaput.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
(SPOILERS) William Goldman said of Saving Private Ryan, referencing the film’s titular objective in Which Lie Did I Tell? that it “becomes, once he is found, a disgrace”. “Hollywood horseshit” he emphasised, lest you were in doubt as to his feelings. While I had my misgivings about the picture on first viewing, I was mostly, as many were, impacted by its visceral prowess (which is really what it is, brandishing it like only a director who’s just seen Starship Troopers but took away none of its intent could). So I thought, yeah Goldman’s onto something here, if possibly slightly exaggerating for effect. But no, he’s actually spot-on. If Saving Private Ryan had been a twenty-minute short, it would rightly muster all due praise for its war-porn aesthetic, but unfortunately there’s a phoney, sentimental, hokey tale attached to that opening, replete with clichéd characters, horribly earnest, honorific music and “exciting!” action to engage your interest. There are…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I’m the spoiled toff who lives in the manor.

Robin Hood (2018)
(SPOILERS) Good grief. I took the disdain that greeted Otto Bathurst’s big screen debut with a pinch of salt, on the basis that Guy Ritchie’s similarly-inclined lads-in-duds retelling of King Arthur was also lambasted, and that one turned out to be pretty good fun for the most part. But a passing resemblance is as close as these two would-be franchises get (that, and both singularly failed to start their respective franchises). Robin Hood could, but it definitely didn’t.

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…