For films and literature about dystopian societies, there's no better setting than England (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Children of Men, Never Let Me Go, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, V for Vendetta...). But when it comes to post-apocalyptic locations, the place to (not) be is Australia (on the strength of Mad Max and The Road Warrior and even Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome alone, not to mention the classic On the Beach and Tank Girl). Perhaps it's the way Australia already seems like a post-apocalyptic place, with its natural wasteland scenery of the Outback, its racially and ethnically troubled society, and its mondo-poisonous animal kingdom. Plus, the events of the pre-apocalyptic film The Last Wave could take place tomorrow, and it wouldn't be a bit surprising.
Add The Rover to the antipodean eschatological list. The film, starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, takes place Down Under "ten years after the collapse." Eric (Pearce) goes into a way station in the middle of nowhere to get something to drink. A group of outlaws (Scoot McNairy, David Field, and Tawanda Manyimo), on the run from a violent robbery, wreck their truck and steal Eric's car. Eric, desperate to recover his car for unknown reasons, goes in hot pursuit. A man the criminals left behind for dead, Rey (Pattinson), is grievously injured but goes on the chase as well. Eric and Rey find common purpose but have disparate agendas.
The script (David Michôd and Joel Edgerton) is assembled in deliberate, stripped-down fashion. Each plot thread comes together slowly but surely. The film drives right into the story, then explains its world slowly and only partly. Brief bouts of dialog punctuate long stretches of silence. As director, Michôd's long takes consider the land and the survivors' place in it. Antony Partos' spare, foreboding, primal score takes up instruments seemingly one at a time: percussion, piano, euphonium, bass, tin whistle.
Post-apocalyptic Australia, with car chases over endless, uninhabited highways, concern over the price of petrol, a plot fueled by vengeance, a violent, once-civilized loner you root for in spite of yourself: No, it's not one of George Miller's Mad Max films, though there's no reason you couldn't pretend it's an unacknowledged prequel. That said, The Rover is more Mad Max than The Road Warrior. The harsh action is closer to the brutality of the original than the gonzo sequences from its sequel. (And, it must be noted, Eric drives a sedan, not a DIY armored supercharger.) Emotionally, too, The Rover mimics the existential angst of Mad Max.
In fact, The Rover may be the most depressing, black-mooded film seen in some time. I think I recall one moment of levity, in the first five minutes, before the shape of the movie came into focus. Michôd and company challenge you to keep pulling for Eric amid his relentless, Ahabian quest for his car. He takes no prisoners who don't serve his purpose. You'll pull for him because we are inculcated to cheer for the protagonist. But The Rover, when all is said and done, retroactively positions Eric less antihero and more ... well, someone both more and less sympathetic than he appeared.
The script paints the mourning at the core of The Rover, and cinematographer Natasha Braier proves the point: Eric and Rey, after the fall, face to face in a dry and waterless place. "If you don't learn to fight, your death is going to come real soon," Eric warns Rey. Hilarious!