Outside of the two competitions in the official selection of the festival (Palme d’Or and Un Certain Regard), there are also a number of out-of-competition slots available. Getting such a slot does not automatically mean that your film isn’t good enough for one of the competitions. Just last year, for instance, a film like J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost could have easily been in competition. It’s just that either studios opt to stay out of the fray for a number of reasons, or a director chooses not to compete with fellow auteurs (Woody Allen is a prime example of this).
In the case of The Rover, however, one has to wonder if quality wasn’t indeed the main determining factor. Australian director David Michôd burst onto the scene four years ago with Animal Kingdom, which even netted an Oscar nomination (supporting actress Jacki Weaver), but his follow-up feature is a significant step back. Instead of a ‘slow burn’ thriller, he has managed to create a ‘no burn’ version, where not a whole lot happens apart from occasional flurries of action that usually involve one person shooting another. A plot description could start with “Guy Pearce walks into a bar…“, but the punchline of the film is so baffling that it wouldn’t be a funny joke. Still, that’s how it starts. While in said bar, his car gets stolen, and he sure as hell wants it back. The rest of the film is then spent tracking the three guys who stole his car. Along the way, he picks up the wounded brother of one of the men, who left him behind after some shootout elsewhere. The brother is kind of pissed about that, so he’s glad to help Pearce.
And that’s it. On the road they meet some other characters left and right, who almost invariably get shot, and otherwise they either just brood a lot (Guy Pearce), or mumble incoherently (Robert Pattinson, as the disgruntled brother).
I think the brooding atmosphere was certainly what Michôd was going for here, but he took it several steps too far. Setting the tale in some dystopian, Mad Max-like future (without the outrageous costumes, however), where lawlessness rules and it’s every man for himself, the atmosphere in itself is fitting, but one has to have some semblance of a story and context to be engaged. We barely get to know Pearce’s character’s name (it’s blink-and-you-miss-it, although I’m not sure how you would blink with your ears), and certainly not his background. Likewise with Pattinson’s Rey, who is left for dead by his compadres at some shootout we never learn the reason for, nor do we know who these men are and what drives them. The director seems to be coasting on the admittedly strong visuals by cinematographer Natasha Braier and an effective score full of long, deep synths by Antony Partos.
All is left then to the two performances by Pearce and Pattinson. The former is good in his solemnity, but restricted by it as well. His Eric barely shows any emotion, and we can’t really get behind the eyes of this man to find out what makes him tick. The screenplay sure doesn’t help either the actor or the audience in this regard.
Pattinson on the other hand is far from solemn. His Rey is made up of an impressive set of facial ticks, snarls, and mumbled lines in an accent that can be accused of many things, but certainly not Australian. Perhaps there is a valid reason for this, but again the context is not provided, so we will never be able to tell. Pattinson’s performance is definitely that, though: a ‘performance’ with a capital P. There is not much scenery in the bleak surroundings, but whatever exists, he is trying to chew it. It is a sight to behold, although I’m not quite sure I would qualify the performance as a good one.
In the end, however, even the entertainment the young Twilight actor provides (and kudos to him for taking on a role out of the mainstream like this) cannot make up for the general feeling of “So what?” that pervades this anemic road movie. Thierry Frémaux did well to hide this in a late gala screening. Perhaps midnight would have been even better (although The Salvation the previous night in that slot was even worse).