JULY 18, 2014
AUSTRALIAN DIRECTOR David Michôd’s second film, The Rover, is part of a rich heritage of Australian dystopian cinema that combines the destructive power of cars with the country’s harsh, sparsely populated rural areas and desert interior. A gritty crime drama, it is among the small group of Australian films with a true noir sensibility — a bleak atmosphere and a narrative where events start badly and end up worse — on a brief list that also includes Michôd’s debut 2010 effort, Animal Kingdom.
The Rover is set in the Australian outback 10 years after an unspecified global financial collapse. It opens with a lone, unnamed traveler (Guy Pearce) sitting behind the wheel of his dusty Holden Commodore car, before going into a roadside café. The traveler’s gaunt, weather-beaten features, the café’s ramshackle appearance, its silent, heavily armed Asian owners, and the Cambodian love song booming through the establishment’s aged speakers combine to create a feeling of impending menace and a sense of geographical and cultural confusion.
The film suddenly shifts to three men driving through the desert, fleeing an unspecified crime gone wrong. One of the men, Henry (Scoot McNairy), is angry about having to leave his brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson, of Twilight fame), for dead at the scene of the crime. The argument becomes physical, distracting the third man, the driver, and their vehicle veers off the road. The three men emerge from their car and grab the first alternative vehicle they see, which just happens to belong to the lone traveler, and take off again.
“I want my car back.” The traveler’s first words are his mission statement for the rest of the film. He sets off in pursuit, stopping at another crumbling settlement only to buy a gun. After a surreal exchange with a soft-spoken elderly female brothel owner he locates a firearms dealer. The negotiation results in the first of many acts of violence on the part of the traveler: the murder of the dealer. (He only accepts US dollars, which the traveler does not have.) The traveler picks up Rey, who has survived the heist but is badly wounded, and sets about finding a doctor to patch him up so that Rey can lead him to the men who stole his car.
The Rover can be seen as the latest in a line of Australian dystopian road films, the best known of which are the Mad Max trilogy, films that influenced Michôd, as he has acknowledged in numerous interviews about The Rover. They are part of a lineage of dystopian road films, the earliest of which is Peter Weir’s masterful 1974 debut feature, The Cars That Ate Paris (or The Cars That Ate People as it is known in the United States). Weir’s film depicted a small rural town called Paris, whose economy is based on deliberately causing road accidents and salvaging anything of value from the mechanical and human wreckage. The survivor of one of these “accidents,” a hapless young man (Terry Camilleri), is adopted by the town’s mayor and discovers the car-obsessed youth of Paris are extremely dissatisfied with the way the town is being run. The film, which was well received internationally but failed to win over critics and audiences in Australia, is best known for its iconic Volkswagen covered with large spikes.
Other films in this ilk include Ian Barry’s Chain Reaction (1980), about a vacationing auto mechanic and his wife who get enmeshed in efforts to cover up a dangerous leak at a nuclear storage facility (billed as “Mad Max meets The China Syndrome”), and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1986 Ozsploitation classic, Dead End Drive-In. This film depicted a near future where drive-in theaters have been turned into concentration camps for Australia’s socially and politically undesirable elements.
What elevates The Rover above these B movies are the wonderful cinematography by talented newcomer Natasha Braier and the assured, measured way Michôd depicts his future world. As in the most effective cinematic dystopias, films like Children of Men (2006) and The Road (2009), Michôd’s vision is chilling precisely because the seeds of it are visible today. The film has larger geopolitical overtones — a major reason Australia, virtually alone among Western economic nations, emerged from the financial collapse of the last decade relatively unscathed was the presence of a powerful mining boom. While other nations faltered and defaulted, Australia survived by digging up minerals, mainly to feed China’s insatiable development. The mining boom has reshaped Australia’s economy and transformed large parts of the countryside, turning many formerly sleepy towns into major economic centers. It has given mining companies and the magnates who own them, historically a powerful force in Australia, unprecedented political and financial clout, and caused an influx of overseas labor, mainly from Asia. Michôd takes all this, adds the hint of financial distemper that currently hangs over the Australian economy, and projects a vision in which society and its structures have all but broken down except for those related to mining. It is an uncomfortable spectacle: Australia depicted as similar to one of the resource-rich, conflict-ridden states like Nigeria and Zaire that we are used to glimpsing in the margins of the news media.
The presence of Cambodian shopkeepers and Chinese rent boys in the middle of the outback hints that whatever collapse happened was global in nature. Communities have been uprooted and flung into strange places. Heavily guarded freight trains, their carriages stenciled with Chinese characters and loaded with mineral wealth, lumber through the desert. Groups of soldiers patrol settlements on behalf of some unspecified power based in Sydney. Food and gas are in short supply. American dollars are the only currency accepted by shopkeepers. Everyone is armed, and most have ulterior motives and dark intentions. The only exception is the female doctor (Susan Prior) the traveler enlists to help Rey. But even she and her Aboriginal companion are heavily armed, and terrible things befall them as a result of being drawn into the traveler’s orbit.
Michôd’s first film, the critically acclaimed Animal Kingdom, despite its vastly different subject matter, has strong parallels with The Rover. Animal Kingdom focuses on Josh (James Frecheville), a young man who goes to live with his estranged grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and their extended family after his heroin-addicted mother overdoses. The first morning Josh wakes up in his new house he finds his Uncle Baz (Joel Edgerton, who collaborated with Michôd on the story of The Rover) counting the proceeds of the family’s latest armed robbery on the kitchen table while his grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody, makes orange juice. Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a tattooed drug dealer. The youngest brother, Uncle Darren (Luke Ford), is like a beaten dog, struggling to retain the last shreds of his decency and sanity from being devoured by his siblings. But the most dangerous of the brood is Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), an old-school heist guy and sociopath on the run from the police (who have the entire family under 24-7 surveillance).
Animal Kingdom is loosely based on one of Melbourne’s most notorious underworld families, the Pettingills, who were involved in drug dealing, murder, and armed robbery. Two of the sons stood trial in 1988 for shooting two police officers as part of a lengthy vendetta. The sons are widely suspected of being guilty, despite having been acquitted. The Pettingills’ exploits have provided rich material for local screenwriters, including serving as the basis for two of the country’s best television crime series, Janus and Phoenix, both of which were shown by Australia’s national broadcaster in the 1990s.
In Michôd’s version, the only member of the Cody clan sensible enough to realize that their power is on the wane, and that they need to change their ways, is Uncle Baz. His murder by rogue elements of the police is the signal for events to spin rapidly out of control. In revenge, Pope, Craig, and Darren kill two cops, escaping in a car stolen by Josh. The police quickly realize that as the most recent addition to the Cody family, Josh is the weak link. But even Josh underestimates the lengths to which his uncles, particularly Pope, will go to cover their backs.
Josh is completely out of his depth among the hardened criminals of the Cody family. It is not just that he is unintelligent. He is shut down, sleepwalking through his existence. It is a logical reaction to his day-to-day life; first with his heroin-addicted mother, and then with his chaotic and criminal adopted family. Robert Pattinson plays Rey in The Rover in a similar vein. A jittery, monosyllabic, uneducated youth, he reminded me of the people who always seem to get pulled over by the police in the TV show Cops, unable to fathom the extent of their predicament or offer a coherent explanation for why they are in trouble.
Michôd provides little in the way of explanation for what has gone wrong in Rey’s life. All we know is that he is from the southern United States and came to Australia to work in the mines. As the film progresses, Rey forms a bizarre, totally unreciprocated dependency on Pearce’s character. The only flourish given to Rey, a nod to Pattinson’s previous vampiric cinematic incarnation, is a brief scene in which he sings along to the Keri Hilson pop song “Pretty Girl Rock.”
Rey and Josh exemplify the most unsettling aspect of Michôd’s filmmaking style, the way he is happy to let the plot unfurl with little context or explanation. Pearce’s traveler is a totally stripped-to-the-bone character, without the slightest redeeming feature or sympathetic trait. “I was a farmer, and now I’m here,” he says to Rey at one point. His body is covered with scar tissue, and, in his only significant speech, he tells one of the soldiers working for the anonymous authorities in Sydney that many years ago murdered his wife and her lover. Is he as bad as he says he is? Is he lying for effect or is he simply insane? Why the traveler needs that particular car, the narrative spine of the film, remains unclear until the end.
Similarly, in Animal Kingdom, one minute Josh is on the couch in his public housing apartment, the body of his dead mother beside him, and the next he’s sharing digs with Melbourne’s most notorious crime family. The death of his mother, the feud between the Cody family and the police, the machinations of the legal system: nothing is reasoned or analyzed. Things just happen, usually without warning. Michôd’s characters, whether they dwell in a dystopian outback future or underworld Melbourne, do not face consequences in a formal or legalistic sense. The only sanction is what the most powerful or violent among them is capable of dishing out. The only control weaker people like Rey and Josh can exercise is through random and ultimately futile acts of revenge.
In this respect, it is worth noting another, subtler way in which The Rover has confounded critical expectations. A number of Australian directors have delivered solid genre-based crime movies early in their career, only to shift to safer, more mainstream fare. Two examples are Bruce Beresford and Phillip Noyce. Beresford quickly graduated from films like the transgressive comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) and Money Movers (1978), a dark heist story set in an armored car company, to more mainstream efforts. Noyce’s second film was the well-made edgy political thriller Heatwave (1982), loosely based on the real-life disappearance of Juanita Nielson, a prominent activist against mass development in the colorful vice quarter of inner Sydney known as Kings Cross. He made several other local dramas and made-for-television movies, before directing adaptions of the Tom Clancy novels Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994).
Contrary to this pattern, Michôd has chosen to follow up the critical success of Animal Kingdom with an even darker, more uncompromising genre offering. It’s an exciting choice for anyone interested in the development of Australian noir cinema.