CANNES - David Michod's "Animal Kingdom" was a venal little crime drama with strong, unsparing character work, and it garnered him international attention, with Jacki Weaver eventually landing an Academy Award nomination for playing a mother who was only slightly less terrifying than the Alien Queen. Little wonder he was able to attract some big names to his new film, "The Rover," which is making its premiere as part of this year's Cannes Film Festival.
It's been programmed as part of the Midnights section here at Cannes, but I would imagine any audience coming off of a long day of screenings who tries to actually sit through this at the tail end of their day is going to find themselves struggling. Glacially paced and intentionally minimalistic, "The Rover" tells the story of how a man living in Australia ten years after "the collapse" hunts down the men who took his car. That's it. That's the entire narrative arc of the film, and while there are other characters and certain events that serve as digressions, it all eventually comes down to a man pursuing some other men because they took his car and he wants it back, and while there are some very strong performances in the film, the movie is inert, dramatically speaking, and covers such familiar ground that I can't really recommend it.
One choice that struck me as strong comes right at the top of the film, when a single title card sets up where and when the film takes place. "Australia. Ten Years After The Collapse." That is all the information you're going to get about what happened, and that's fine. For the most part, when people refer to "post-apocalyptic" films, they're not really use that word right. An apocalypse would end everything, not just send us scrambling for resources. But a collapse? That's something I can get my head around and imagine actually happening, and the way it's presented here, I feel like there are already plenty of places that look and feel like this in today's third-world.
Guy Pearce, sporting a haircut that looks like it was given to him by three blind men during an earthquake, plays an unnamed man (no one ever calls him "The Rover" in the film, even though that's how the press notes explain the title) who is incensed when three guys, played by Scoot McNairy, David Field, and Twanda Manyimo, steal his car because they are running from… something. At the scene of that something, Henry (McNairy) left his brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) laying in a pool of his own blood, presumably on his way to death. Eventually Rey and the Rover team up to track down Heny, each for their own reasons.
I've seen a ton of movies in this general genre, and Michod definitely displays a knack for world building here. He's trying to do something more serious with an archetype that typically leans more towards the "Max Max" end of the spectrum. I like that this is not George Miller's Wasteland, a place full of carnival freaks who are delighted to have taken power. There is something very straightforward about the way Michod lays out his plot, which is pretty much the least important part of the film to him. He seems far more interested in the unspoken, the chemistry between Pearce and Pattinson, and the way violence is used in place of conversation in a land where everything is this desperate, where nothing is easy.
There are certainly things I enjoyed in the film. Pearce is a strong center to the film, constantly holding back rolling waves of violence and fury. He quietly shakes instead of lashing out every time, and it's obvious that while the transition between the world of now and the world of the movie has been hard on everyone, Pearce plays his part as a man who was broken and who not only can't put himself back together, but who has lost the piece he would need. He is a dead man who refuses to lie down, kept moving only by the habit and by that rage he carries around.
Robert Pattinson's Rey seems like he's barely able to function as a person. He mumbles, he seems like a bit of a dummy, and while he seems capable of violence, he feels like a scared kid who's constantly terrified of everyone else, unsure why people do what they do, unable to communicate on those rare occasions that the synapses all actually do fire. He's very good in the role, and while I'm not crazy about the film as a whole, if Pattinson keeps making choices like this and his ongoing collaboration with David Cronenberg, there may actually be a future for him where people are genuinely shocked to learn that he starred in the "Twilight" movies.
The film's basic game plan is long stretches of near silence, oblique dialogue that says nothing, punctuated only by moments of ugly violence presented in a matter of fact way. Even in those moments, it feels like the design here is to anti-glamorize the brutality. It is matter of fact. It's simply the way people interact at this point, as everyone tries to hold on to whatever they still have. Natasha Braier's cinematography (the film was shot on Super 35mm film) is bleak and bright, capturing the heat and the hopelessness of the Australian landscape. Antony Partos contributes a very simple but effective score, and Jo Ford's production design tells much of the story simply by virtue of the spaces these people occupy.
There is a payoff to the film, an eventual punchline that throws the actions of Pearce into a new light, but it's so slight, and the film itself is so deliberate, that I simply didn't care. "The Rover" is not by any means a bad film, but it is too slight to support the weight that everyone brings to it. It is worth seeing if you're a fan of the filmmaker or either of the lead actors, but it feels like a film that mistakes somber for significant. Just because your characters are hollow men, that's no reason to make a hollow film. I suspect there will be people who look into this film and see something deeper reflected back at themselves, but that will say more about them than the movie itself. David Michod will continue to work, and I definitely think he's got talent, but this is more of a stutter than a step forward.
"The Rover" opens in limited release on June 13, 2014.