After making an intense debut in 2010 with Animal Kingdom, his harrowing yet intimate look at a closely-knit but ice-cold Australian crime family, director and writer David Michod has returned with The Rover, an even grittier and leaner look at life down under 10 years after an event known as the Collapse sent Australian society — and possibly that of the rest of the world — into a steep, brutal freefall. No one in The Rover really lives, they just survive, scrabbling for resources in this bitter and unforgiving new environment.
One of those survivors is Eric (Guy Pearce), a man of few words who is ignited into vicious action by the theft of his car, which he wants back at all costs. That puts him on a collision course with Rey (Robert Pattinson), a simple-minded and needy young man who is chasing the car thieves for his own reasons and who sees Eric as an unlikely protector and even friend. Their story is played out against the parched backdrops of the Australian desert, with Michod carefully doling out enough small details to make the viewer uncomfortably aware that this near-future scenario is not just plausible, but possibly right around the corner.
“The seeds of the story came from different places,” says the soft-spoken and somewhat shy Michod when we sit down to discuss the film at a Los Angeles hotel. “The point of origination was me and (actor/writer) Joel Edgerton in a backyard only a couple of blocks from here back in 2007, throwing ideas around for a movie that we thought maybe his brother Nash would direct — his brother being a very accomplished stuntman and a great action director, particularly adept at working with cars… we started with something as simple as cars in the desert.”
Michod and Edgerton spent 10 days or so fleshing the idea out before Michod went away to write a first draft script for that movie, only to discover it wasn’t the film he wanted to make. “I very quickly started turning that first draft into a movie that I would want to make which isn’t necessarily a big action movie,” he recalls now. “I then went away and made Animal Kingdom and in the sort of madness of the couple of years after that, trying to work out what the hell to do next, I came back to The Rover because I liked the idea of it for a number of different reasons.
“I really loved the idea of a movie that I could control, that I had already started building from the ground up,” he continues. “But I also loved it on a formal level. You know, I didn’t want to try and make something even bigger and more complex than Animal Kingdom as a second movie. I liked the idea of going the other way around and doing something that felt far more elemental and that might even play like a kind of dark, violent fable. And so I decided to make it.”
One of the more interesting aspects of The Rover is that it does not take place after some specific, one-time cataclysm. Although the Collapse is invoked, it is does not appear to be the result of a meteor hit or an alien takeover, but rather a slow apocalypse that seems to be gradually draining the world of its vitality and humanity instead of stamping it out all at once.
“That is the nature, I think, of collapse,” explains Michod. “The movie doesn’t sort of furnish you with a huge amount of information about what has happened, but I had hoped that everything you needed to know would be contained in that world alone. You know that it wasn’t after an explosion or after an invasion. I imagine a huge part of it, a huge contributor, would be some kind of economic collapse. But, you know, no one really knows exactly how or why the Roman Empire collapsed. People have theories about it being most likely a confluence of a number of different factors that a complex society couldn’t handle.
“So I find it incredibly easy to imagine what those factors might be in the world of The Rover, you know.” He adds, “An economic collapse combined with a couple of horrific natural disasters, coupled with, in all likelihood, wars that have might well have been started and fought over resources, and the next thing you know certain economies are in free fall. I always wanted the world of the movie to be an Australia that had kind of regressed to a sort of resource-rich Third World country. But you’re right, I didn’t want to sit it on the other side of a cataclysm that I think almost immediately allows an audience to detach and enjoy their popcorn. I wanted it to feel very much connected to the world of today.”
With its arid Australian settings, minimalist dialogue and “world running down” tone, it’s difficult to watch The Roverand not to think about another classic near-future auto-based saga created 35 years ago by Michod’s countryman George Miller. Michod agrees that the shadow of Miller’s iconic Mad Max trilogy – Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – hangs over any film that ventures into the same dystopian territory.
“Even from the very early days Joel and I knew that we were venturing into territory that George Miller owned in a way, just by putting cars in the desert,” says the director. “And there’s no getting around the fact that those films are seminally important to Australian cinema. Not only were they really good — especially the first two — but they were kind of genre defining. But I also knew from very early on that I wanted to push those touchstones to the side because I had a vision of a movie that would feel very different. Just like when I knew that I was kind of vaguely treading into the world of the Western. I didn’t want to drag a whole world of Western influences into this one either, because again I had an aspiration that this movie would be something really unusual.”
The Rover is out now in limited release and expands nationwide on Friday, June 20.