Most people think of the western as an American genre, but Australia has been making westerns for almost as long as we have. The 1906 silent film The Story of the Kelly Gang told the story of Ned Kelly, a legendary Australian outlaw, and was both far longer—nearly 60 minutes—and far more sophisticated than American films at the time. Since then, westerns have remained a mainstay of Australian cinema, although they never quite flourished there like they have in the U.S.
The Rover, the sophomore feature from Australian director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom), springs forth from that tradition but also offers an intriguing path forward for the genre. Leaving behind the themes of an ascending civilization and its conflict with the wild, The Rover envisions the breakdown of society through the genre’s old but still relevant lens.
Set 10 years after a global economic collapse, the film follows Eric (Guy Pearce), a grizzled drifter who travels across the Australian outback to reclaim his car from a trio of thieves, who used it to escape after a heist gone wrong. He needs help finding them, so he teams up with Rey (Robert Pattinson), the emotionally sensitive, mentally disabled brother of one of the thieves. Despite being left for dead at the scene of the crime, Rey wants to be reunited with his brother. Eric only wants his car back.
Why does our hero want this particular car so much? “It’s a silly thing to care about in a world like this,” one character tells him, and at first we agree. The mystery quickly recedes, however, and we begin to see it as a somewhat arbitrary but vital way for Eric to hold onto his humanity. It is not the car that matters; it is that the car matters to him.
The two actors do a brilliant job of expressing the characters’ difference in purpose. Pearce keeps Eric’s humanity hidden behind his rough appearance and stoic disposition, although glimpses of the man he used to be emerge occasionally from his expressive eyes. Pattinson, on the other hand, offers a broad performance of developmental disability that might draw accusations of ableism. It is a bold, often squirm-inducing performance from the former teen idol, but it works. When Rey’s innocence starts to slip away towards the end of their journey, it becomes clear, though perhaps it’s too late, that he was Eric’s only real chance at salvation.
Michôd’s vision of our future is relentlessly bleak—the sparse Australian landscape needs little exaggeration for post-apocalyptic storytelling—and the people are more vicious than anything from our Wild West. Murders are committed, even by our ostensible hero, with a startling casualness. Women and children do not last long. The few times that kindness is proffered, it is swiftly and brutally punished. It all feels like a Spaghetti Western in a new context, and The Rover’s clever and impactful use of film’s oldest genre leaves you asking the right question: Is this violence part of our past or our future?