The Rover

Year: 2014
Production Co: Porchlight Films
Director: David Michôd
Writer: David Michôd
Cast: Guy Pearce, Robbert Pattinson, David Field, Nash Edgerton, Anthony Hayes

It's far from the first movie to show the brutality of life in the post-apocalyptic outback of Australia, but it might be the best one there's been in quite a few years.

It's also set way before the Mad Max -style years, so there's not a lot of sci fi-tinged production design or effects necessary beyond some ramshackle buildings and dusty clothes, which means the story, people and dialogue have to work all the harder for it to succeed. Writer/director David Michod, who was king of the hill for five minutes after Animal Kingdom (which the critical firmament loved but I thought was just okay), does so with talent to spare.

I can't remember when we learn the name of the guy we meet at the beginning, so complete is the Man With No Name archetype, but Eric (Guy Pearce) has stopped at a remote service station to stock up on supplies.

Nearby, in an apparent robbery gone wrong, three dirtbags fight bitterly as they make their escape from the bloodstained road with their stash. One of them, Henry, is upset because they had to leave his injured brother Rey behind, assuming him to be dead after he's been shot.

After sniping and baiting each other for a few minutes a fight breaks out in the truck and it runs off the road and crashes. The occupants stumble out, realising they've stopped near a settlement and taking the first working car they can find – Eric's, the settlement being the servo he's inside.

He gets their truck out of the bog and gives chase, and with nowhere else to go the trio pulls over where Eric confronts them, but they overpower him, knocking him out and taking off in his car again.

Much later, Rey (Robert Pattinson) critically injured from the sting gone wrong and obviously intellectually disabled, happens upon his brother and the gang's truck, not realising Eric is not far off provisioning a weapon from a small group of circus performers – violently.

When he comes back with his newly purloined gun and finds Rey, badly hurt, in the car and demands to know what he's doing there, he realises the kid can lead him to his quarry because he's going to know where they're headed. He forces Rey to go with him and they hit the road.

First order of business is to get the badly injured kid patched up before he bleeds to death, which they do by visiting an out-of-the-way doctor who takes in stray dogs and agrees to help Rey before violence descends when the circus performers come to exact revenge.

Two turns in the plot signal the change in the characters, but on the surface they're so brilliantly and subtly handled you'd never know from one scene to the next. When they hole up in a cheap desert motel and Eric is out, Rey is terrified to see soldiers coming towards the motel. He locks the door and when someone tries it, fires the revolver Eric has unwittingly left behind through the door in a panic.

Eric returns in time to kill the soldiers doing battle and Rey learns that the person he actually shot through the door was a cleaning lady checking the room. Blasting his way through the attacking soldiers and making off with Rey, Eric essentially saves him.

Later, after he's taken prisoner by more soldiers – who patrol the outback for stragglers they can send away for processing to make money – Rey somehow has the mental wherewithal to burst into the base, kill everyone and rescue Eric.

Without realising, and owing to his having the mind of what's essentially a child, the young man now considers Eric his partner and friend, barely even blinking when they walk away together as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Later, when they reach the house where Rey's gang is holed up in the early hours of the morning, all Eric has to do is take the keys, retrieve his car and steal away into the dawn forever. But Rey, even though he knows he's going up against his brother and former friends, still has such a childlike view of the situation he can't understand why Eric isn't going inside to make them pay for taking his car.

The biggest character development in the film comes when Eric agrees, vindicating Rey's convictions and hatching a plan to slip inside and take them all prisoner – with tragic consequences for most of those involved.

The great thing about the character of Eric is that he's a tightly coiled spring of violence and force. In the beginning he has no friends and he treats Rey like you'd expect for most of the movie – a means to a selfish end.

Suddenly, you realise he feels for the kid, agreeing with him about doing the right thing even thought he can get away scot free, finding tenderness and friendship, and all without breaking the violent, brutal and angry truth in his character. It all adds up to a great character by Pearce with a minimum of performance – most of the attention at the time was on Pattinson as the younger man.

There isn't a real lot that stands out in the design or dressing so it's indeed not Mad Max, but Michod doesn't appear to have any aspirations to do so. It's a buddy road movie, one wearing the clothes of a million other collapsed-world thrillers and where the relationship is as subtle and searing as the world it inhabits.

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