Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: The Rover

Image courtesy of A24.
"The Rover" is the latest in a long line of movies about sullen, taciturn men whose primary mode of communication is violence. The picture is the sophomore feature from David Michod, whose debut - "Animal Kingdom" - was a gripping portrayal of an Australian crime family's undoing. His second feature ups the ante on grim violence, but is a step backward narratively.

Much like last year's "Only God Forgives," the two leads of "The Rover" are mysterious to a fault - that is, they hardly say a word about themselves or their motivations. This is a case of less not exactly being more. And similar to the case of Nicolas Winding Refn's recent movie, Michod follows a truly original breakout hit (Refn's was 2011's brilliant "Drive") with a more stripped down one that feels as if the filmmaker rushed into his next movie, rather than waiting it out until he came up with something better.

I'm probably making "The Rover" sound worse than it is. In fact, while not exactly a good movie, it's far from a bad one. Guy Pearce gives the type of committed performance you'd expect and Robert Pattinson's work here is obviously aimed as a means of breaking out of the heartthrob roles for which he had been pigeonholed following the "Twilight" series. Also, the film's cinematography and settings do a good job of creating a sense of time and place.

That time and place happen to be in Australia some 10 years after a global economic collapse. Dirty looking people live in hovels and ration gas and food or sell weapons for money that no longer has any real value. And the wild west style of justice in the land enables murder in plain daylight without fear of arrest.

Pearce's character is a bundle of secrets. We hardly know a thing about him - that is, until he first tells a soldier late in the film how his own life was affected by the world's collapse 10 years ago and, finally, at the picture's finale, we find out what his strange mission has been all along. At the beginning of the movie, his car is stolen by a gang of criminals, who knock him out and leave him on the side of the road.

Through various circumstances, he happens upon the brother (Pattinson) of one of the men who has been left for dead after some sort of shootout. He takes Pattinson's character, who has some sort of mental disability, prisoner and the two made a trek across the dusty Australian desert to find the men who stole Pearce's car.

Because we know so little about either of these men, it's difficult to become too invested. Pearce is mostly surly and violent, while Pattinson's character just comes off as befuddled. Although the actors give it their best, they are given little to do. This is one of those films where the director and writer thought that scowling faces and staring off into the distance are meant to fill in the blanks, but this method only rarely pays off here. There's also an extremely odd choice of music during one point in the picture.

"The Rover" is a risky movie for a second feature and I'll give credit to Michod for following up his critically acclaimed debut with something a little less flashy. But the film's jumping back and forth between being too muted and relentlessly grim makes it feel disjointed and, ultimately, I'm not sure what the picture means to convey. I'm hoping that Michod's next film will give him a better forum for his obvious talents.

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