Australian director David Michôd made quite the impression with his outstanding first feature, 2010’s Animal Kingdom, so expectations were understandably high for his follow-up, The Rover (2014), which screened out of competition here at Cannes. Whilst not quite on the same level of his debut, Michôd’s sophomore outing is still a high quality piece of work and an original take on a glutted genre. Set some years after the ‘Collapse’ – an unspecified apocalyptic event – the world is a lawless mess. Remnants of humanity huddle in small, suspicious groups, food is hard to come by and violence a constant threat. We first meet Eric (Guy Pearce) as he has his car stolen, setting in motion a cross-country pursuit.
On the way, Eric meets up with a mentally-challenged young man, Rey (Robert Pattinson), who has been shot up but is the brother of one of the men (Scoot McNairy) who stole Eric’s car. Together, they head south in pursuit, Rey to be reunited and Eric to get back his vehicle. With his badly-cut hair, his feral, half-crazed eyes and his occasional bouts of deliberate violence, Eric is a man who’s lost all his humanity and is fully cognisant of the loss. “You should never stop thinking about someone you’ve killed. That’s the price you pay for killing them.” he tells Rey. He’s a man who sees no particular point to surviving, but at the same time is driven by an urge to recoup his property – the car is, at least initially, the inexplicable MacGuffin of the piece. Thankfully for this odd couple, Eric quickly regains a mode of transportation.
The other half of the Of Mice and Men duo, Rey seems more of a native to the post-apocalyptic environment and the chaos around him. Pattinson – in his second film of the festival following David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars – effectively puts to bed his reputation as mere eye candy for teen Twihards. His Rey is a mass of ticks and twitches, his words tumbling over each other as he tries to comprehend the world, or simply create noises which are something other than gunshots and weeping. He’s also the holy fool of the piece, seeing and understanding things which Pearce’s grizzled traveller can’t. “Everything doesn’t have to mean something,” he tells Eric. Along the way, the pair run into a number of oddballs, but there’s also some semblance of normal life going on. Weapons are drawn with alarming frequency, but there are still hotels, shops and occasional glimpses of not-yet-ruined civilisation.
Although haunted by the ghosts of many, many films of this genre – the one it’s most reminiscent of is L.Q. Jones’ A Boy and his Dog (1975) – The Rover avoids the comic book fantasy of George Miller’s Mad Max films, the sentimentality of John Hillcoat’s The Road (2011) and the sheer awfulness of I Am Legend (2007). Its nihilism and despair is utterly straight-faced – as serious and driven as Eric in fact. The script, written by Michôd from a story from actor Joel Edgerton, is full of memorable moments, from Eric’s gaunt philosophy to Rey’s effusive babble. Elsewhere, Natasha Braier’s cinematography burns the Australian desert of all colour and hope, at once gritty and desolately beautiful. For most post-apocalyptic films, the nightmare is really a disguised fantasy. In Michôd’s excellent The Rover, the nightmare is real.
The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.