Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Rover mutated Robert Pattinson into a grimy, twitchy character actor

Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in The Rover
Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in The Rover
Photo: A24

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: You don’t have to go to the theater to get your Robert Pattinson fix. We’re looking back on some of the best performances from the one-time vampire, future caped crusader.

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The Rover (2014)

David Michôd’s The Rover represented a turning point in Robert Pattinson’s career, being the first of a series of roles in which the English actor subverted his charisma and good looks to play desperate, mentally frazzled characters with criminal pasts. However, his ingenuous, mumbly redneck Rey (short for Reynolds) isn’t the main character of Michôd’s memorably grim post-apocalyptic chase film. That distinction belongs to Eric (Guy Pearce), a violent loner who’s looking for his stolen car—or more specifically, some personal symbolism represented by the contents of its trunk—in the movie’s nihilistic, lawless near future.

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Of course, post-apocalyptic imagery involving motor vehicles is an Australian invention that was popularized by George Miller’s Mad Max movies and a vast assortment of Mad Max wannabes and knock-offs that were produced elsewhere throughout the 1980s and ’90s. At least to an outside observer, it always seems to speak to some sort of edge-of-the-world mentality and an unease about one’s own backwaters (evident in pre-Mad Max movies like Wake In Fright and The Cars That Ate Paris) that may be inspired by a vast empty landscape whose shortage of natural predators makes rare humans the alpha threat.

This element of national myth makes sense, because The Rover is functionally a Western, not unlike John Hillcoat’s Nick Cave-penned The Proposition, which also starred Pearce. (Hillcoat went on to adapt The Road; again, it’s an Australian thing.) In Michôd’s film, we find plenty of analogs to the tropes of both classic American Westerns and the sweatier, bloodier, and more fatalistic Westerns of Italy. There are homesteads, bandits, revenge-seekers, and a distant, fortified military presence. Considering that the movie is set after some kind of total economic collapse, it does seem to track with the line that capitalism’s future is going to look a heck of a lot like the past.

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It would be an extreme understatement to say that this comes across as grim. The relentlessness of Pearce’s character—a basically nameless protagonist, as he’s only called “Eric” in the credits—is matched by the seeming pointlessness of his personal mission and the view of humanity presented by the movie. As filmmaking, The Rover is engrossing: semi-abandoned production design, desolate backdrops, grungy lighting, downbeat atmosphere, spartan direction, dirt-seamed faces. But it isn’t exactly flattering to our species, which is something of an achievement when the exponents of broken humanity are represented by men who are as precisely handsome as Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.

Even the meaning of the title speaks to a perverted sense of irony. This might not be one of those apocalyptic scenarios in which the threat of extinction factors in the plot, but one gets the feeling that, in the world of The Rover, such a development would be for the best. In that respect, Rey, a wounded robber who was abandoned by a gang that included his brother (Scoot McNairy), is not only Eric’s foil but also a character with whom we can more easily identify. At the very least, he seems to be capable of guilt. He also delivers the film’s most memorable and surprising grace note by singing along to Keri Hilson’s 2010 ode to inflated self-regard, “Pretty Girl Rock,” on a car radio. (At one point, this writer adopted the song as his alarm ringtone, much to the annoyance of his A.V. Club editor and occasional Toronto Film Festival roommate, A.A. Dowd.)

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Unfortunately, Michôd hasn’t made anything as good since, though Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the story) has established himself as a sturdily reliable presence as an actor. Pattinson, meanwhile, has built up a résumé of implosive, edgy, occasionally vulnerable, thickly accented characters with something to run from in the likes of Good Time, The Lighthouse, and High Lifeall of which were released or co-produced by The Rover’s fledgling distributor, A24. If there’s an origin story to his remarkable lead performances throughout the second half of the 2010s, it starts here, in an Australian wasteland with no right or wrong.

Availability: The Rover is available for rental or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Flixfling, DirectTV, and VUDU. It can also be streamed on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and SlingTV with a Showtime subscription.

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