An absurdist apocalypse in the Outback
David Michôd, the Australian writer-director of the exuberantly twisted, dialogue-rich crime family epic Animal Kingdom, ditches story and dialogue for his latest entry, The Rover, an enigmatic, elegantly filmed minimalist thriller starring Guy Pearce, Scoot McNairy, and Robert Pattinson.
An absurdist cross between Samuel Beckett and Sam Peckinpah set 10 years after a global economic collapse, Michôd's headtrip of a film is an evocative, moody road movie through the Australian Outback that's as sparse and dry as the desolate landscape it traverses, its deliberate rhythm punctuated by short periods of shocking, bloody violence.
It's Mad Max, but without the black leather, mohawk hairdos, or marauding gangs of bikers.
The story is dead simple. We open in medias res in a vehicle with three armed men speeding down a highway after a botched robbery. One screams - and bleeds profusely - from a gunshot wound. The other two argue incessantly, yelling over each other with passion.
The frantic action, the shouting, the chaos come to a screeching halt when their truck swerves off the road into a ditch. Spotting a dusty old sedan outside a roadside dive, they hot-wire the thing and take off.
They've lifted the wrong man's car! And how! Pearce is formidable as Eric, the owner of the stolen car. A man of few words, he fixes the trio's truck and gives chase with a monomaniacal dedication that borders on the pathological, leaving in his wake death, destruction, blood and tears.
He really wants that car!
Michôd's postapocalyptic Outback is populated by the oddball and the outcast - we even spend time with a broken-down caravan of circus attractions.
Eric is no hero. He kills without a second's hesitation, including a little person from the circus who offers to help him.
Yet our antihero betrays a strangely tender side when forced to defend the hilltop home of a female doctor whose life's work seem to be guarding dozens of abandoned pet dogs. (Otherwise, they'll be killed and eaten, she tells Eric.)
Like all good Westerns, The Rover ends with a deadly showdown.
It's not until the final seconds of the film that we find out why Eric was so desperate to get his car back.
The ending is so affecting, so deeply moving, so poignant - and yet so utterly absurd that one doesn't know whether to cry or laugh.
The Rover ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by David Michôd. With Guy Pearce, David Field, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy. Distributed by A24.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 mins.
Parent's guide: R (language, bloody violence, smoking)
Playing at: the Ritz East