When it comes to summer movies, Hollywood likes to rely on the same collection of actors to cover certain archetypes. If your script has a goofball character, both Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen fit that bill. A sly temptress that can lure moms and dads? Angelina Jolie is casting wisdom. Need an Everyman American with steely nerve and a big grin? Tom Cruise, your agent is calling. But what if your summer release is a bleak, nihilistic trip through a rough outback wasteland with a social menace, like David Michôd’s new thriller, The Rover? Well, you would be hard pressed to find an actor who can sink into the gallows of that role with as much intensity as Guy Pearce.
Pearce has always been a hard performer to pin down. In many of his notable roles – the disciplined cop in L.A. Confidential, the driven amnesiac in Memento, the sunburnt outlaw in The Proposition – the Australian actor internalizes the character’s pain and agony so that the audience can only interpret shades of his personality. He is well-suited to Michôd’s sparse and unflinching morality play, as The Rover does not offer easy answers. The thriller is full of bruised characters, brutal violence and a blanched, beaten down wasteland, but unfortunately, its intensity and jarring violence seems pointless and tired, even with Pearce’s laser glare beckoning us to pay attention.
The Rover is riveting, but only to a point. It takes place 10 years after an unexplained “collapse” left Australia grappling with debt and crime. Gas and money are scarce, and people walk around in dirty, tattered clothes, trying to avoid the despair surrounding them. One day, a group of bandits (led by Henry, played by Scoot McNairy) crash their truck and decide to steal the sedan of one tight-jawed loner, Eric (Pearce). Eric retaliates by following the thieves and promising retribution. Along the way, he finds a new ride, a shotgun and Henry’s little brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson), who also bears a grudge for the elder sibling. Together, the tortured gunslinger and the pathetic redneck decide to track down the thieves.
Bursts of sharp, splintered, jarring violence punctuate Michôd’s gritty, post-apocalyptic thriller. Like his stellar debut, Animal Kingdom, the writer/director focuses on brutal, threatening male figures; however, he leaves little room for personality here. The oily, edgy charm and bruised humanity that made the characters from Animal Kingdom so richly realized is as scarce as the drab color palette in this film. The atmosphere is simply not enough to keep audiences intrigued in alienated characters from a very familiar genre setting. While we learn small details of Eric’s backstory along the way, his fierce mission to reclaim his car never gets us to the bottom of what makes him crack.
Pearce gives a dark, magnetic turn in The Rover as a man who has to live with some skeletons in his closet. As Eric tells Rey, “you should never stop thinking about the life you’ve taken… That’s the price you get.” However, his blazing road warrior backstory never comes to fruition and ultimately, feels a bit anti-climactic. Pattinson, on the other hand, mumbles through a role that could have been much more in the hands of someone wry and wounded. (Joel Kinnaman, who balanced boyish charm and a contemplative mind on The Killing, could have owned the part.) With a squirrelly voice and difficult-to-pin-down accent, Pattinson looks like he’s trying too hard to wrap his head around the character’s speech patterns and fails to bring Rey the agency that could actually give the man a say in the story. The actor keeps landing roles in films with good directors, yet has not quite capitalized on shifting his career away from Twilight.
Though The Rover‘s first third showed no sign of a sophomore slump for the Australian director, the plot becomes pretty thin after the two leading men band together, and the characters remain ambiguous to the point of torpidity. To his credit, Michôd remains an adept master of suspense, with long and still takes that linger to the point that you expect somebody to jump out and shoot. He keeps the anxiety up by not shifting to reaction shots, making us hazy and uncertain of the violent forces standing beyond the frame. The threat of peril definitely exists throughout, but without interesting humans to follow, The Rover turns into an exercise in futility, with tough characters marching around a tired setting.
Grim, dry and pointless, The Rover is a tense thriller set in an Australian wasteland that ends up wasting a terrific performance from Guy Pearce.