The Rover opens with a man at the end of his rope. Eric (Guy Pearce) has nothing. Except for his car. Naturally, when Eric steps out of his vehicle to grab a drink, it’s stolen by a group of bandits, and for the first time in a while, Eric has a purpose: get his car back. It’s deliberate in its simplistic structure, but sweating from point A to point B is only the surface of director David Michôd‘s layered second feature film.
It’s a lean movie compared to Michôd’s directorial debut Animal Kingdom, and that was by design. “I wanted to make something much more elemental and an intensely intimate about a small number of characters in vast and empty landscape,” Michôd tells us, reflecting on The Rover‘s stiflingly hot environments while sitting in the air conditioned meeting room of the Four Seasons Hotel. “I love the idea of making a movie that would work in a similar tonal world as Animal Kingdom, but be of a different form.”
But Animal Kingdom and The Rover are kindred spirits in more ways than tone. Both films focus on introverts facing an internal struggle within the framework of the more obvious, more aggressive external threat. However, this time around Michôd’s lead is far less passive, stopping at nothing until he retrieves his property.
At the center of this “dark fable that plays by slightly different rules,” Eric roams through a quasi-post-apocalyptic Australian desert. Who Eric was before the economic collapse is mostly a mystery, but the man in his mid-40s was never an enigma to Michôd. “He’s old enough to remember what life used to be like, while young enough to still be vital and dangerous,” he explains. “He’s a man that had been a farmer and likely fought in a war over recourses. He came back from the war to discover something hurtful, while the world is falling apart.”
Eric is a character we come to know through his battered physicality and actions. When Eric goes after the men who stole his car, he does it in such a methodical way it implies this isn’t the first time he’s had to chase somebody down. Still, some viewers may leave the film curious about who exactly Eric is, and that curiosity was Pearce’s first impression when he read the script. “I thought, ‘This is kind of amazing, but I don’t know what it is.’ It took some convincing from David to actually do the film,” he tells us. “I didn’t really understand the character and who he had been. The empty vessel you see on the screen is kind of the empty vessel you see on the page. I was struggling to get a sense of who he was.”
Eventually the star of Memento and L.A. Confidential came to see Eric as more. There’s a pivotal scene in The Rover that tells the audience everything they need to know about both the protagonist and the film. In one of the rare conversations Eric has, he asks another man about how they live in this world. When there’s nothing left, why keep going? Does this world have purpose? Do our actions have consequences? How can Eric, like everyone else, find value? Those are questions Eric and a lot of people in this wasteland simply can’t answer.
We, the audience, are thrown into this world with a bird’s eye to find the answers Eric cannot. With that in mind, there’s not much to the anti-hero at first glance. We’re meant to spend these 103 minutes in the character’s shoes without knowing how he got them or where they’ve been.
While Michôd and Pearce envisioned an elaborate backstory for the character, we only see inklings of it. “I don’t need to put it on the screen, but I need to feel confident and comfortable with who the character is, even if the character is uncomfortable or struggling,” Pearce says. “I don’t want to be asking too many questions when I step on the set. You have to inhabit the character without thinking about it.” An interesting creative method, Pearce is faced with answering the same questions Michôd wants to leave an audience with.
“To be honest, if I have to ask too many questions about a character, then I think we’re in trouble,” the actor elaborates. “I don’t want to cobble something together if it’s not on the page. I’ve said no to jobs in the past because the character wasn’t on the page. They say they’ll let me create the character, but I don’t want to create it. I’m not the writer.”
The Rover seems to be an exception to his rule. Pearce jokes that even if all his questions weren’t answered, he probably would’ve played Eric anyway. Michôd is a director Pearce respects for his honesty and ability to convey an explosive moment in seconds. Like another of Pearce’s frequent collaborators, director John Hillcoat, Michôd follow characters conditioned and bred to those violent moments. Guns, blood and crime are their breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s all Robert Pattinson‘s “half-wit” character Reynolds has ever known. Reynolds has never been educated, has had to defend himself since he was a kid, and has lived most of his life on the road.
What kind of a life is that? Why should he fight for it?
If you haven’t gauged by now, The Rover is about more than a broken man going after one of his few possessions. Some critics have called the film “slight,” a criticism Michôd doesn’t take kindly to. “For the people who see it only as a guy going after his car, that’s deeply dissatisfying,” Michôd sighs. “When I read it’s ‘underwritten,’ I think they haven’t tried to read the movie.”
It’s a rather experiential idea to watch a film about a character searching for meaning while doing the exact same thing as an audience member. The Rover isn’t a conventional film, but nor does it follow a conventional man. The Eric we see at the beginning of the film may be the exact man we’re watching by the end, completely unfazed by his journey, but it’s perhaps because we’re watching a man who’s done evolving. If we experienced the regular, senseless killing that he has, then maybe some of would turn out just like him — someone who lives at the end of his rope.
The Rover is now in theaters.