Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Rover

Alternate Title:  Madder Max

One sentence synopsis:    A violent, dangerous drifter pursues the men who stole his car through the post-collapse Australian outback.

Things Havoc liked:  A year before I started doing these reviews, I saw an Australian gangster film called "Animal Kingdom" by a first-time director named David Michod. It was a wonderful little film, sparse and twisted and intensely realistic, and more than that, it managed to star several actors I don't like (Joel Edgerton, Guy Pierce) and make me like them despite our history. As such, when I learned that Michod had returned to the screen with another movie about bad people doing very bad things in the middle of Australia starring a pair of actors I couldn't possibly care less about, I knew I had to be there.

I've made no secret of my distaste for Guy Pierce in these reviews. He nearly ruined Iron Man 3. He wore terrible old-person makeup in Prometheus. He made The Time Machine, Lockout, and Two Brothers. And while obviously there are roles of his I have liked (Memento, LA Confidential, The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert), my distaste for his smug leading man schtick remains firmly intact. This role, however, is like nothing I've ever seen from Pierce. Eric, the main character of the film, is a murderous, violent demon, quiet and barely controlled, a sociopathic monster whose inclinations towards summary action are given free reign by the dire circumstances that society has fallen into. Yet Pierce does not play the character as a screaming maniac, but rather like a villain from one of Ralph Fiennes' better performances, Coriolanus perhaps, or even Schindler's List. Quiet, monosyllabic, and yet deeply disturbing, Pierce evidences a raging ferocity through nothing more than expression and eye movement, staring into the depths of people's souls like a drilling augur before killing them with ruthless, entirely non-cinematic efficiency. A scene early on where he attempts to buy a gun from a group of carnies, only to remorselessly murder them at the first sign of difficulties, cements the tone of the character nicely. Protagonist or not, this character, and men like him, are not victims of the fall of civilization, but the reason for it. And in the absence of the law, they are let loose to do as they would in pursuit of objectives that may well make sense only to themselves.

But Pierce, for all that I hate him, has been good in films before. His co-star, Robert Pattinson, of Twilight, has not. And yet moreso even than Kirsten Stewart, I wanted to give Pattinson another shot, as there were hints, I felt, that Twilight was not a fair means to judge his actual abilities. And while Stewart was simply not up to the task of headlining her second chance (Snow White and the Huntsman), Pattinson is on a completely different plane of existence here. Unrecognizable from his chaste pretty-boy persona in the Twilight series, Pattinson plays Reynolds, a redneck miner with a southern accent captured early on by Pierce's character and forced to take him to the hideout of his brother and their gang of car thieves. Lisping and confused, Pattinson plays the character like a victim of some kind of mild retardation, a damaged, naive, unfocussed loser, so dependent on others for direction that he willingly becomes Pierce's accomplice, despite the fact that Pierce himself seems to want little or nothing to do with him. Stuttering, limping, and simpering like a whining dog, Pattinson's performance is, astonishingly enough, the best thing in the entire movie, reminding me somewhat of Leonardo DiCaprio's turn in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which is not a comparison I make lightly. Indeed, I must admit that it occurred to me while watching this movie, that before he became the well-known and well-respected actor that we know today, DiCaprio had to make such teenage masterworks as Titanic and Romeo+Juliet.

The Australian outback is a punishing, unforgiving place, as anyone who has seen Mad Max can tell you, and consequently needs little to transform it into a perfect setting for a gritty, brutal movie of violence and death. Yet aware of this as he is, Michod decides against the usual tropes of post-apocalyptia, of souped-up cars worn by men in gimp masks and famous landmarks crumbling amidst the open waste. What exactly happened to render things so bad is not stated outright, but seems to have been less nuclear war and more stock market crash. Some facets of society still exist, the Australian military, the mining industry, precisely those you would expect to continue on in the aftermath of anything short of total annihilation, hardened and sharpened to a brutal edge. Money still circulates, though the Australian dollar is hinted as having become worthless, and shopkeepers will take nothing but US from behind their armored, gun-covered storefronts. Revealing comments, like one of Pattinson's that travel times are longer thanks to the lack of road maintenance putting a limit on people's effective speeds, or the doctor who takes care of dozens of dogs abandoned by their presumably-deceased owners, are the stuff of the collapse here, not lurid Emmerichian images of the Opera House in ruins. The shots are long and desolate, as much a western as an apocalypse film, as characters walk across barren plains into sharp sunrises, or loom menacingly before dark corridors in buildings full of armed men. The violence, when it erupts (and it does erupt) is fast and brutal and entirely uncinematic. People simply are shot and die and are then dead and the movie goes on, in the best traditions of any society-breakdown film.

Things Havoc disliked: I've got nothing against a movie that doesn't stop every five seconds to explain itself, but unfortunately, that only works if the movie doesn't leave major questions in its wake, and this one unfortunately does. Early on, after Guy Pierce has confronted the men who stole his car and is beaten unconscious for his trouble, he awakens on the side of the road, alive, and lying next to the thieves' original car, fueled and intact, with his money and his guns still on his person. Given the general tenor of this film, the question begs itself, why is Pierce still alive, let alone in possession of all the tools necessary for him to enact his crusade for revenge? It's not like the men who subdued him have been established as being possessed of particularly strong moral codes against killing, and the question as to why they have left him in this state is simply never answered, not even with a throwaway comment about how it would be 'wrong' to kill him out of hand or something. Similarly, characters find one another in the midst of the outback via methods that are never established, tracking them effortlessly over trackless desert to precisely the right locations, all without any indication as to how. I understand the desire to do away with the obligatory establishing material in favor of simply telling the story and implying the rest, but some establishment is required in order for the film to make sense. Another sequence early on had Pierce carrying an automatic pistol in one shot, and in the next, prominently carrying a revolver instead. After a minute's confusion and whispered conversation with my neighbor, I managed to construct a reasonable explanation for why Pierce suddenly had a different gun, but the fact that it was necessary for me to effectively stop watching the film for a minute and consult with friends in order to follow what was happening is not a good sign insofar as the film's editing is concerned.

There's also a simple question of pacing. The Rover is a slow, deliberate film, allowing tension to build out of empty spaces and unspoken lines, which is fine, but the tendency here is to push it a bit too far. Characters can never actually say anything without hemming and hawing for five minutes, and have to spend at least ten seconds of pregnant silence between every single short or monosyllabic line they pronounce. Used sparingly, this is an efficient technique, as evidenced by dozens of films including Unforgiven. But used constantly, all it serves to do is make most of the movie feel like padding as nobody, not even brooding loners staring into the campfire with rage-laden eyes, speaks like this constantly, and anyone who does would be so unsettling as to rapidly put anyone else off of their attempts to engage them in conversation. As it stands though, characters react to an wild-eyed, armed psychotic, visibly on the verge of a breakdown, whose words are clipped and quivering with rage, by smiling sweetly as though nothing is the matter and permitting him to walk about their homes armed and unsupervised. Given the state of society and the fact that everyone is so constantly on-edge against the predators that roam the roads, this is like making a Godzilla film wherein soldiers have been battling giant monsters for the better part of a decade, and then making everyone dismiss loud booming footsteps which shake the very walls as nothing but thunder, while stacking their weapons in another building and going back to sleep.

Final thoughts:  The Rover is a stark, well-acted thriller of a movie, an attempt to do Mad Max without the camp, but it's problems like these that really hold it back. Taken by themselves, the performances on offer here from Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson are worth seeing in any context, but unfortunately the context in question is just not good enough for a full-throated recommendation. Michod's first film, Animal Kingdom, was damn near a masterpiece. It garnered Jackie Weaver a deserved Oscar nod for her turn as the matriarch of an Australian crime family after all, and yet this time round, Michod's lack of experience at the rest of the business of moviemaking is unfortunately on display. I will continue to watch this man's career with interest, as Rover was at least good enough to prove that the first film was not a fluke, but the systemic flaws of script, editing, and general pacing (something that seems to bedevil an awful lot of the films I see, Hollywood and otherwise) keep this from being anything but a niche recommendation.

But then, if all you're looking for is the exploits of a crazy man in the Australian outback killing people, you might still want to check this film out. It's not like that genre is overflowing with examples.

Final Score:  6/10

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