Baby You Can’t Drive My Car (The Rover, 2014, David Michôd)
As anyone familiar with it can tell you, the cinema of Australia has a flavor all its own. Indeed, I can hardly think of another country with such a unique cinematic language; the sun-baked aridness, the strange argot, the sense of menace just underneath everything. With The Rover, we have a kind of Aussie cinema meeting of the minds: extremely promising new director David Michôd, whose nervy 2010 debut Animal Kingdom was one of the best and most intense crime thrillers of the past several years, working off of a story he co-wrote with fellow Australian hot commodity Joel Edgerton, directing ever-reliable Australian actor and past collaborator Guy Pearce in a post-apocalyptic automobile-obsessed setting on loan from Mad Max. With all this in mind, it’s possible I got my hopes up a bit too much, but the end result just isn’t quite as awesome as all that seemed to promise.
The film opens with Pearce’s anonymous protagonist (apparently named Eric, though I’m not sure they ever call him that in the movie) parking his car outside a dingy streetside bar to do some drinking and brooding. As he does so, a trio of bandits fresh off a botched robbery crash their own truck and, not ones to pass up an opportunity, steal Eric’s car. In what is pretty unquestionably the best scene in the movie, Pearce manages to revive their crashed truck and enter into a car chase that breaks every rule of movie car chases, slowly and deliberately giving malicious pursuit as Antony Partos’ wailing, metallic score whinnies like a dying horse and brings the tension to an unbearable boil reminiscent of the best scenes in Animal Kingdom. It doesn’t end up working out well for him though, and the group gets away, leaving Pearce with little idea of where they’re headed. Luckily for him, early in his travels he comes across Reynolds (Robert Pattinson, sounding a little like Boomhauer from King of the Hill), the wounded fourth member of the crew who the rest of them, including his brother Henry (Scoot McNairy), left for dead. Reynolds is a bit slow-witted and helpless, and the violent, imposing Eric is able to muscle him into leading them back to the stolen car he seems to care so much about.
There’s something really interesting to the stolen car angle; like a lot of Australian movies and a lot of post-apocalypse movies, The Rover is heavily influenced by the American Western (with all their horizontally-defined shots of desert landscapes, rare is the Aussie movie that doesn’t feel like it owes a debt to John Ford). And any student of the genre knows the extreme abhorrence reserved for horse thieves. But by giving the focus of Eric’s unrestrained rage and violence to a revenge quest so petty and based on commodity, the film manages to give some added grim potency to the resource-starved, post-societal-collapse setting.
Unfortunately, apart from the beginning and end of the movie, the possibilities of this theme aren’t really explored in any kind of depth, and in the middle, all we get are the unlikely duo of Pearce and Pattinson bouncing around aimlessly from uninteresting vignette to uninteresting vignette. And the usually rock solid Pearce isn’t much help; depicting reactive, animalistic hurt is something of a specialty of his, but he ratchets it up a bit too far here, and the end result comes off a bit like self-parody, specifically a parody of his performance in John Hillcoat’s excellent neo-western The Proposition, the non-Mad Max movie that this one aspires the most to be. It’s not a bad performance, per se, but I’m trying to come up with a Guy Pearce performance I like less and I really can’t.
Much better, surprisingly, is Pattinson, who at first just seems like a twitchy non-entity, but as the film goes on he does a great job of depicting the character’s increased comfort around his captor through some wonderfully unselfconscious childlike mannerisms; a moment of him simply drinking out of a bottle of water alone in his room is as heartbreaking as such a simple action could possibly be, and it’s almost solely due to Pattinson’s work here that the movie has anywhere near the emotional impact that it strives for.
There are other consolations, too. The music is absolutely excellent – I’ve already mentioned Partos’ great score, and as a big Tortoise fan, it was a pleasant surprise to hear a couple of choice cuts from their early catalog sprinkled throughout. And one particular use of bubblegum pop late in the film ranks as the best use of such music in recent cinematic memory. The sound design overall is great, from the emphasis placed on the menacing growl of the cars’ engines to the long stretches of peaceful quiet that are all too often interrupted by startling violence. And the excellent cinematography by Natasha Braier combined with some frighteningly on-point production design make this… well, “a treat for the eyes” is certainly not the right turn of phrase for a movie that depicts so much matter-of-fact horror and ugliness, so lets just say it’s very well done. One tracking shot involving a series of roadside crosses might be one of the most memorably bone-chilling moments in this particular subgenre.
Still, there’s just something missing here. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of padding in the middle. As road movies go, this one is particularly aimless, and not in a way that serves the effect. For all Michôd tries for Lynchian bizarreness at the pit-stops on Pearce and Pattinson’s road trip, none of them leave much of a lasting impression. And for all the cruelly hopeless violence and the overreaching ponderousness of the climax, the movie never really feels like it has much to say. Michôd even goes so far in one scene as to have Pattinson tell Pearce “Not everything has to be about something,” but that feels a bit like a desperate dodge. I don’t mind a healthy dose of bleak in my movies – was I not just heaping praise on Animal Kingdom and The Propositon? – but the bleakness in The Rover might end up feeling as pointless to those in the audience as it does to the film’s nihilistic protagonist.