The Rover / David Michôd / 2014 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Central performances; Music
Side Effects: Heavy-handed screenplay; Neutral visual style

Like Michôd’s previous film Animal Kingdom—and perhaps even closer to Killing Them SoftlyThe Rover is a blunt and moralistic fable of the causes and effects of a violent world. Still, it feels sinewy, shifty and more mysterious in tone than those other films, and benefits from this vague ambiance where its heavy plotting and world-building fails.

The Rover follows an aloof and inscrutable, though clearly damaged, survivor living in the post-apocalyptic Australian outback “ten years after the collapse.” It’s a scorched and barren landscape, a lonelier though not altogether foreign universe from 1979’s Mad Max. When his car is stolen and fueled by a blind rage, the unnamed rover (Guy Pearce) sets off to retrieve it. We get the sense that the mission might be little more than excuse to have something to live for, a distant goal on the horizon to drive toward.

When the rover encounters an injured man who turns out to be one of the thieves’ brothers (Robert Pattinson), the film’s thematic tension is established. Michôd and co-screenwriter Joel Edgerton wish to paint them as opposites: the rover is a hardened soul who has learned to do what it takes to survivor and suppress his guilty conscience, his hostage is an innocent, a halfwit unequipped to fend for himself.  It’s a familiar dialectic to cynical, post-apocalyptic narratives and it’s not treated with enough delicacy to surprise here.

Instead, the performances create the heft Michôd seems determined to give his film. The consistency of this universe isn’t entirely convincing, but Guy Pierce’s darting eyes are. The exploration of the psychological toll of retribution feels thin, but Pattinson’s physicality as a performer doesn’t. On the page, the rover is left so vague as to disappear, rather than growing in richness through his ambiguity. Yet the anger, sadness and frustration behind Pierce’s brow conveys all the backstory we need.

Pattinson will likely be more divisive, relying on an array of twitches, nervous tics and vocal inflections. For me the performance, showy though it is, largely works and reveals interesting layers to the actor’s decisions and a growth from his solid work on Cosmopolis. Again, Pattinson is able to imbue his character with more dimensions than the screenplay provides. With little contribution from Michôd’s camera to capture the tone of the story (the music does most of the heavy lifting), the pair of central performance creates enough intrigue to sustain the film.

Through two features, Michôd has surrounded himself with intriguing talent and skated by on the compelling milieux of crime and destruction respectively, but he’ll need to find a softer touch as a screenwriter and a bolder direction as a stylist before he can establish himself as a unique cinematic voice.