As dystopian films go, The Rover isn’t your everyday post-apocalyptic cinematic experience. It’s like a Mad Max movie directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Set in Australia about a decade from now, at a point when society has fallen into disarray, the film is writer-director David Michod’s follow-up to the acclaimed 2010 crime drama Animal Kingdom. The Rover follows embittered war veteran Eric (Guy Pearce), who’s lost everything in the massive geopolitical collapse that’s transformed the mineral-rich but desolate Outback into lawless, deadly frontier. In his quest to reclaim his car, his last remaining possession, from the trio of thieves that stole it, Eric embarks on a violence-charged mission of retribution accompanied by Rey (Robert Pattinson), the wounded, not-quite-all-there brother of one of the thieves who begins to question his own loyalties.
Bleak, stark and sparsely dialogued, The Rover wastes little time trying to orient viewers into its landscape, and holds its characters’ thoughts and secrets close to the vest. “I wanted the world of the movie, set as it is a few decades in the future after a particularly catastrophic economic collapse, to feel like Australia had a major geopolitical-type shift, where Australia had been reduced to a kind of resource-less third-world country,” Michod recently told a group of journalists. “I wanted the world of The Rover to feel like Australia was experiencing a new gold rush. People were coming from all corners of the world to work in and around mines.”
Michod’s is a particular vision that requires – sometimes demands – patience and attention over the easier gratifications of action and explosions, and that was the lure for Pearce, who appeared in Animal Kingdom.
“I’ve worked with David before, but that aside, I’d seen David’s work as well, as I know Rob had,” Pearce says. “I’ve seen David’s shorts as well, and not to suggest he has a tone that he sets and it’s gonna be the same on every movie, but in looking at the script and seeing those films, talking with David before we start, It really feels we get a sense of it. One of the things I really respond to is the tone of a movie – whether it’s a comedy or whatever it happens to be. I think it’s one of those things you really feel through your skin, in a sense, that enables you to understand the rhythm that you’re gonna work in and the rhythm of the character, etc. It’s the kind of stuff you are aware of to a certain degree even if you don’t necessarily talk about it every day.”
For Pattinson, The Rover proved to be another in the string of artistically ambitious efforts he’s made with his filmmaking choices outside the successful Twilight franchise, although he shrugs off the notion that there’s a conscious one-for-me, one-for-Hollywood strategy in play.
“I don’t really have any particular preconceived plan,” Pattinson explains. “Even each of the Twilight movies – I kind of approached them all as individual movies. I never really saw it as ‘Oh, going back to work on…’” He does hope that any of the devoted Twi-hards who follow him into edgier, more demanding material like The Rover find something they respond to – but he doesn’t count on it. “You can’t really predict what an audience is going to like, or want, or even if they’re going to follow you to anything. I think if you try to make challenging stuff, and you put your heart into it, hopefully at least one other person is going to like it.”
Pearce says he was intrigued by the violent but complex nature of his role. “He’s cut off emotionally from a lot of things,” he says of Eric’s frequently deadly actions, especially when the audience is unsure whether he’s a righteous avenger or someone a little more menacing and unhinged. “There is a certain level of difficulty and regret that he feels when he kills, but at the same time there’s an ability to just kill another one, if he has to. It’s kind of a horrendous line that he treads, I think.”
With so much riding on potent visuals, ambiguity and things unsaid, Michod admits he felt “the pressure of getting it right, and feared the consequences of not. Beyond that, every scene is really important to me – I don’t go into any scene feeling like ‘This is the big one and I have to nail it!’ but I go into every scene with adrenaline coursing though me, fearful of getting it wrong, and also excited about what will happen when we start rolling the camera.”
Although The Rover marks Pattinson’s second foray into a dark near-future cinematic world that’s collapsing around its central characters – the first being David Cronenberg’s thriller Cosmopolis – the actor insists he’s not especially drawn to dystopian storytelling. “I don’t really see either of them as post-apocalyptic – I mean, I see both of them as quite hopeful as well,” he says. “I think Cosmopolis was about a guy who didn’t know how to live and has one second of feeling what it’s like to be alive, which is kind of a good thing – it’s more than most people, I think. And The Rover was always really hopeful.”
Really, he’s not a pessimist. “I have a very optimistic view of the world,” he chuckles, “mainly because I like my life.”
Now playing in New York City and Los Angeles, The Rover opens wide Friday.