The threat of extinction looms over the human race — nuclear holocaust, environmental catastrophe, biological annihilation. Apocalyptic images pervade the cultural landscape like never before — zombies uprisings in film, television, comics and video games — World War Z, The Walking Dead, Mad Max Fury Road, Godzilla (2014), Pacific Rim, Fallout, The Last of Us, Metro 2033, Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion, Tom Hank’s web series Electric City.
Even the fashion world is preoccupied with Doomsday — distressed black leather, the hipster set’s “athletic-goth” look, Nike “Roshes” (hey, you’re gonna need a fast pair of shoes to outrun brain-eating zombies… less so for a lethal airborne virus!).
And let’s not forget the newfangled, ever-intense regimes for disciplining the body to withstand earth-shattering impacts: the masochistic Crossfit craze, “Spartan” races and other “boot-camp” style technologies for moulding and forging the body for the crucible to come.
There’s a sinister theory the apocalypse has already happened, and that this onslaught of artwork, fashion and narratives in film, TV and literature is evidence. These artifacts are symptoms of a condition that enable us to reflect psychologically and socially, helping us adapt to this new “after the collapse” world.
Or, perhaps such texts prepare us cognitively, training our perceptual apparatus for the carnage and destruction to come? We’re all on our own. Survival of the fittest? The smartest? Or the most lucky? Global capitalism has only accelerated the fact that the contemporary self is unmoored, detached from the morally grounding structures of Church, King, Nation; even the once revered institutions of finance have been shaken to the ground. Our relentless pillaging of the planet’s resources, and our reliance on technology has alienated an already fragmentary and fragile sense of self. The Seventh Sign, The Seventh Seal, our contemporary fictions are telling us…something is very fucking wrong.
While scenarios of global annihilation play out within popular culture, works with more literary aspirations have also employed conventions of the “apocalyptic genre”: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Canadian painter Kim Dorland’s “Zombie” series, the Book of Revelations, are just a few examples of “high-art,” that imagines the possibility of worldwide destruction.
And while my choice for the best film of the year hasn’t appeared on many reviewers’ lists, and received only a very short run in theaters, I feel a critical responsibility to bring this minor masterpiece to greater attention. The Rover, directed by David Michôd, is one of the most ambitious, well-crafted and compelling films I have seen. Michôd, whose debut film, the Australian kitchen-sink gangster saga, Animal Kingdom (2010) galvanized cinephiles and critics everywhere, here ventures forth in an even more experimental direction, though one no less rooted in genre. If Michelangelo Antonioni had directed Mad Max from a script by Cormac McCarthy, it might have looked something like The Rover. And if that isn’t a searing endorsement, I don’t know what is. This is one of my favourite films of this past year and it deserves extensive analysis.
The greatest praise I can shower on The Rover is that it invites us as viewers to pay attention, and moreover to pay attention to how we pay attention to films. Critics who condemned the film for its simple plotline are wide of the mark. Simplicity does not mean simplistic, and the film’s nominal plot is a frame for some of the most ambitious experiments in characterization, cinematic rhythm and genre revisionism in recent years. The film’s opening title informs us “Australia, ten years after the collapse,” however whatever cataclysm presaged the unfolding action is never directly relayed. We open on a close-up of Eric (Guy Pearce), the film’s taciturn protagonist, sitting in his car for what feels like an inexorably long time. Through the car window we can see a shed and the arid, sunburnt Australian landscape. The camera holds on his still, but grizzled profile. The very opening shot trains the viewer to revise whatever initial expectations we may have and to acclimatize the audience to the film’s decelerated, laconic rhythms.
The character exits the car and walks into one of the make-shit habitats beside the road. He opens the door and strides into a room where an Asian man is lying in another Asian man’s lap as a Mandarin pop song plays loudly on their stereo. The arrangement is curious: are the two men lovers? Friends? Family? The film will recurrently build up such curious social arrangements throughout the mise-en-scène – one of the subtle ways the film explores the theme of the fragile affiliations or partnerships that might bind human beings in this nihilistic new world. As the music swells in the room the atmosphere suddenly feels like a poor slum dwelling in Hong Kong or Shanghai. This is just one of the off-kilter touches the film teases at us, suggesting perhaps something about the global nature of the collapse that has occurred. But this is not the post-modern Jamesonian landscape of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, where Tokyo is envisioned as the city of the future. Rather, Michôd introduces only glimpses of Asiatic iconography in what feels like pregnant and salient ways throughout the film.
Another element that informs the film’s perpetual strangeness is how interpersonal relations and social cues between characters are reduced to the absolute minimum. Pearce walks into the room and without even a glance or gesture to the sitting pair, proceeds to a tub of water to wash his face. We have no idea if he knows the two men, or has intruded into their space for the first time. Or is this some sort of restaurant, bar or fuelling station for the wayward traveller. The film cuts to an agitated trio who are fleeing something that has gone wrong – a robbery? A murder? The film never explains. Their car crashes near Eric’s and without a pause they climb into his parked vehicle and race away. They clearly are fleeing from something, fast.
The rest of the film follows Eric’s pursuit to reclaim his car. The film is essentially an extended chase, but the motives behind his relentless pursuit to regain his vehicle aren’t found till much later. Along the way he picks up Rey, the brother of one of the car robbers, a seeming dullard, played by Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame. Rey is first presented as Eric’s hostage, ransom for the return of his car but gradually the two begin to carve a partnership necessary to their mutual survival in this uncertain and violent landscape. Rey reveals he and his brother came to Australia from the States to seek mining work, suggesting that some basic industries may still be operative. When Rey later displays the ability to speak Mandarin, we must reassess our opinion about both him and the geopolitics of this world. The part is a breakthrough performance for the actor who brandishes a convincing Southern accent and reveals a depth of emotion in what is one of the most skilfully interiorized and physically nuanced performances of the year, and if the film had been seen by more people, certainly merits awards nominations.
The Rover enlists two significant strategies at the level of both style and narration. First, the film provides minimal narrative exposition. This highly reticent style tells us little about the world the characters inhabit or the nature of their lives, professions, past or current situations. All we know about this dystopian society we must work hard as viewers to glean and infer by scanning clues in the film’s austere and sparse mise-en-scène. What are its laws? What are the currencies of exchange? Is it a relative anarchy or a paramilitary autocracy, as a showdown with some army members later in the film may suggest.
One reason The Rover can provide such little exposition is that the film alludes so often to well worn genre conventions: chases, gunfights, roadside stops that are investigated for provisions – all of these are stock elements of the apocalyptic film and are so well known to audiences that now Michôd can invoke them with a sort of iconographic shorthand and play freely with the film’s style. Take a chase that happens early in the film. Mad Max and other action films, have by now presented us with numerous variations on bombastic car pursuits through similarly post-Apocalypse Australian landscapes. And The Rover too features what begins as a high-speed chase. But instead of climaxing with thrilling collisions and chase choreography, the cars decelerate, slow down to a creep, and then eventually stall as the figures exit their vehicles and start to converse. This is one of many examples of how the film defamiliarizes our expectations and flouts conventions, dilates moments of tension and interests us through stasis instead of sensation.
Michôd’s direction enlists art film strategies such as temps mort, or “dead time,” those moments where the viewer’s experience of boredom is pushed to a kind of threshold and we begin to pay equal attention to our own act of viewing an artwork as much as now noticing new facets of mood or style or atmosphere we might not have experienced otherwise. In “indie,” or art cinema, such strategies are hardly uncommon and one can find precedence in the works of Dreyer, Bresson and Antonioni – but here Michôd is working within a relatively more mainstream context and so must play the precarious game of holding certain shots and moments to a kind of threshold of attention before the audience loses interest and becomes bored. Fortunately, the film is so well calibrated in its formal operations, so subtly textured and conceived, we are robustly engaged throughout by novel variations and modulations in tone and plot development.
Second, the film provides a highly restricted and limited depth of character subjectivity. We learn little about the characters’ backgrounds. Eric (Pearce) alludes to a morally questionable crime he can’t forgive himself for, and we have little knowledge of Rey’s inner life. Michôd employs another art film strategy in the extreme opacity and dedramatization of the film’s performances. By reducing dialogue to an absolute minimum – the script is exceptionally terse – the audience must now seize upon more minute gestures, slight shifts in facial expressions and the moment-to-moment modulations in tone for character emotions and expressivity.
One of the more horrifying scenes, but not because of any shockingly explicit display, occurs when Eric stops at what seems like a residence to ask about the direction of his car. Inside he finds a room full of young people and at the back an elderly, kindly looking lady sits, listening to a gramophone. With great casualness and in a somnolent manner she offers Eric one of the young boys, presumably her grandson, to sleep with. Angered, he asks her again, this time at gunpoint, if she’s seen his car. Unmoved, she insouciantly replies as if recalling a dream “There was a car…it did what most cars do…came in one direction and left in the other.” Such moments are chilling precisely because of the matter-of-fact way they’re enacted in the film and the almost gnomic opacity with which the actors deliver their lines.
Most often, the film anchors us to the perceptual subjectivities of its dual protagonists. Much of the action unfolds through “glance-cut” shots and keeps us restricted to one of the characters as the other’s fate is relegated to off-screen uncertainty.
One of the film’s many fascinating touches: slow protracted dissolves are used frequently as shot transitions providing us time to pause and reflect on the action, the artifice of the compositions, while also alluding to the mannered use of this device in the Mad Max series.
The film features skilled cinematography of landscapes and environs by Natasha Braier, one of several female cinematographers recently who is distinguishing herself in a profession mostly dominated by men. Under the conceit of a thriller, The Rover is as much an exercise in cinematic mood and tone. In this vein, one of the more fascinating and enigmatic aspects of the film’s visual design and iconography are the odd, unexpected touches of Orientalism and introduction of Asian motifs scattered conspicuously throughout the film. When Eric and Rey are involved in a gunfight at a home in which they’ve taken refuge, we see a peculiar tattoo on Rey’s upper arm that seems to depict a monk in the act of despair or self-immolation. And in the reverse shot, before he levels his rifle, Eric swipes a statue of the Buddha, conspicuously situated atop the window ledge. Is the monk here an allusion to “dukkha,” the pali word that refers to the noble truth that all life is suffering and that evidentially pervades almost every aspect of the film’s world?
In another space, the camera holds on a minimalist Japanese landscape painting that is again noteworthy for its singular placement as one of the few pictures we see in the film’s various “domestic” spaces. The soundtrack’s metronomic rhythm and horns, woodblocks and percussion resemble the great minimalist scores and off-beat counterpoint of Kurosawa’s film composer, the great Tōru Takemitsu. The film’s distillation of motifs and sudden bursts of violent action against long moments of stillness or silence are akin to Kabuki or Noh theatre. If we view the film’s use of cinematic abstraction, the almost somnambulistic tenor of some of the performances, it’s incessant exploration of stillness, and void, in the context of Asian art or Zen, then the film’s portrayal of “dead time” is less European than Eastern. As a prediction of the future, the film is only proximately Apocalyptic. The world it shows is not so different from our own. One of the functions of apocalyptic art is to foreground, through a violent eradication of all law and order, the bizarre social etiquette, provisional social bonds and absurd bureaucracies that hang like a fragile web over our world. Eventually the viewer learns what motivates Eric’s obsession with his car and it completes another thematic motif that runs through the course of the film.
The Rover loses much of its impact in home viewing. The exceptionally nuanced visual design and scope deserve the large format of the movie theatre. Nevertheless, it was most unfortunately overlooked during award season, perhaps due to its early release. Still it is certainly one of the best.