The opening to David Michod's visionary The Rover gives only a single title card setting the scene. We're in the outback, and it's “ten years after the collapse.” We don't know, and we don't ever learn, what this collapse actually is. Of course, the horrifying element that slowly reveals itself is that gradually, things are getting worse. As Guy Pearce's tipsy straggler listlessly drinks in an abandoned bar in the middle of the desert, the score swells and shakes, blaring like a single air-horn that gets longer each time it plays. It's last call in the world's final bar.
Pearce's Eric is too groggy to see the carnage outside. A brawling trio of criminals have just wrecked their vehicle, and recovered from their accident by absconding with Eric's four-door. Suddenly, stupor over: Eric pursues the trio in a car chase that's at once tense and hilariously sensible. As they pick up the pace, so does Eric in a second car, aggressively following without approaching violence. When they reach out to fire a gun in his direction, he slows down and placidly falls behind. With the accents and location, it feels very much like a rebuttal to Mad Max, in that here is an existence so sparse that taking a life definitively becomes the very last option.
The criminals, which include Scoot McNairy as Henry, eventually distance themselves from Eric, who continues at a methodical pace. His shoulders slumped, his patchy facial hair suggesting an indifference to hygiene, Eric seems like a person already defeated, and his only quest is to recover the car. Tracing steps takes him to Rey (Robert Pattinson), Henry's younger brother. Rey claims he knows where they're going. Eric takes him on as co-pilot, with gun firmly planted against Rey's temple.
Until a few shaky moments in the third act, explaining what should be the inexplicable, The Rover defiantly refuses to categorize the suffering on display. This is an exceedingly bleak film: the setting reminds one of John Hillcoat's western The Proposition, but it's a lot closer to what Hillcoat's The Road should have been. No one cares that the world ended: they're just trying to find some sort of grace, a calling, something to separate them from the corpses lining the roads. Rey seems like he's hiding something, but it turns out he's mostly just carefully parsing through his own faith. It's a faith born out of ignorance, but the film doesn't judge or demean him. Rey is from the American South, and Pattinson plays him like a chihuahua, jumpy and eager but consistently petrified. He gets in one poorly-planned shootout that ends with him crying in his hands, talking about how he “just wanted to fight.” Rey is a young man seeking a purpose. Eric gives him one, which becomes the film's big moral question.
As for that shootout, it's very much like all the violence in this film. The Rover is an upsettingly violent movie, one that will induce squirminess in all but the most stoic viewer. Each bullet lands, and it's a mess. Nearly every single character at the film's beginning is dealing with a serious wound of one kind or another, slowly bleeding out. With very few characters onscreen, it's a way to illustrate how society is still slowly breaking, slowly giving way to rot. The hopelessness doesn't feel like a pose, however. The Rover acknowledges this dissolution with the blackest of humor. One military outpost is staffed by three people, and yet the radio drones commands all day. And no one, lest not the gas station, accepts anything but American money. Eric chastises them because it's merely “pieces of paper”, and suddenly a frustration sets in, one that reveals the world's corruption coming home to roost.
David Michod made his name with the electrifying family saga Animal Kingdom, a twisty potboiler that depicted the ecosystem of a family of criminals fighting to get to the top of their own food chain. The Rover continues that metaphor: the characters are runty, beat-up slabs of meat, reacting instinctually, and frequently non-verbally, to signs of calamity. Michod's film understands that when petty violence occurs, they are not men asserting themselves, but sad, desperate animals, scurrying to get free. Viewers recall that staggering moment in Animal Kingdom when the drug-addled Sullivan Stapleton staggers out to an open field with the cops in hot pursuit, barefoot, shirtless and desperate. The Rover, while more narrow in focus, continues that single-minded depiction of primal men who can't seem to escape their limitations.