They sit there as abandoned and forlorn as the world around them. Caged, panting, and docile in the face of oblivion, the dogs of Australia—the mutts of the Outback—exist only to breathe on in David Michôd’s exceedingly thoughtful and deliberate post-apocalyptic The Rover. And while their inclusion is not necessarily a microcosm for a society gone to hell or a reflection of the protagonists’ own existential inanity, they are one of the many curious indicators of the most quiet apocalypse (or “Collapse”) ever put to film, one that sweats the small stuff—like what happens to families’ beloved pets when everything has gone to rot.
The most intriguing aspect about Michôd’s image of a homeland a decade into societal ruin is how much that society attempts to muddle through as if nothing has happened. To be sure, the world is more or less over from the first frame of The Rover, however folks still go about day-to-day business and attempt to find commerce and dignity in the booming industries of the era, such as bottled water, cheap handguns, and child prostitution. Yet, nobody acts like the end is near since the new status quo is simply par for the course in the resilient (and perfunctory) human spirit. Clearly modeled as much on current Third World horrors as flights of fancy, living in “Collapse” is still another day in the life.
For example, Guy Pearce’s not-so-heroic Eric begins the movie by having a drink by himself in a near empty bar, barely even noticing the car crash outside until it directly affects them.
Indeed, the most defining aspect of Pearce’s roving protagonist is how almost nothing affects him. Ten years since the world ended and a personal tragedy led to copious apathy, the only thing that seems to matter to him is retrieving the car that was stolen from him in the movie’s first scene. Why he wants this particular car so bad and what it means to him is left almost mostly unexplained for the whole movie, but it is his crucial motivation. Nevertheless, the conviction with which Eric handles himself in all dealings with fellow doomed travelers is not once doubted in Pearce’s captivating performance, which is impossible to look away from. Almost entirely developed by the sweat-stained shirt on his back and the craggy beard that hides the wild and outraged eyes of a man wronged by a world’s permanent indifference, this is one loner who should be truly left that way.
But for better or worse, in terms of both Eric and the movie, another survivor finds himself in Eric’s orbit. Midway through the picture, Eric finds a lead on his missing car, stolen by a gang of opportunistic thieves, when he discovers one member’s dimwitted younger brother left for dead on the side of the road. Robert Pattinson’s Rey is about as sharp as a boulder and equally fast. Only spared to be a snitch and a bargaining chip on Eric’s quest for his sole remaining possession, Rey ultimately becomes an unlikely foil and human connection for the Outback drifter. Unfortunately, this is where the movie’s premise strains.
Pattinson is overall fairly serviceable in the role of Rey, a part where he gives it his all—inadvertently evoking a certain speech by Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder—but the character’s role in the broader narration can be as frustrating as his actions are to an increasingly exasperated Eric. Meant to serve as an inverse, a character of “weakness” trying to survive in a Third World Australia, his presence pulls away from the broader unique vision and turns the story into a poor attempt at a relationship movie between two disparate personalities who remain disparate for the entire running time.
Never quite igniting empathy from the other, it is a shame that Pearce and Pattinson spend more time on these un-buddies than they do exploring this unique world. While Michôd has been quite vocal about the movie representing a potential destiny for the Western World in the “Asian Century,” and having even looked for inspiration in war-torn nations like Sierra Leone and the Republic of the Congo, very little of that is seen in the film. Michôd quite beautifully captures a sparse Australian countryside that complements the ugliness of the dead-eyed men who occupy it.
However, the collapsed economy, which relies apparently on mines and deflating American dollars, is only ever mentioned in passing somewhere off-screen. Imagining a depressed Australia in the margins is a tantalizing one, but the parameters of that remain as esoteric as Eric’s desire to reclaim his missing vehicle. The result is a world that is fascinating to observe, but is rarely open to be entered by even the most engaged viewer.
The Rover can be a ponderous experience that demands much of its audience while intentionally rationing little in return with its iceberg-like visible characters. For those familiar with Michôd’s previous film, the Oscar nominated Animal Kingdom (2011), this is all par for the course. And on its own terms, much like Eric’s guidelines for Rey and the gang that abandoned him, it can be a moody and lingering experience. If viewers are willing to play along, they will even be allowed to enjoy the rough-hewn ride.