I was in the wrong headspace for The Rover (2014, directed by David Michôd), a bleak, more naturalistic version of a Mad Max movie. The movie turns out to be a shaggy dog story, but the punchline of the film had a particular meaning to me when I saw it. I sat in my car for a few minutes after the film trying to process what I'd just seen. Films affect people differently, depending on all sorts of personal factors that vary from viewer to viewer. Some films are more personally relevant than others. For me, this was such a film. Your mileage, of course, will vary. The why of this requires me to reveal elements of the plot that likely should be surprises, so go watch the movie and come back later. I'll still be here.
In its broadest outlines, The Rover is some kind of alternate universe collision of the Australian New Wave with the Australian exploitation boom. It's a chase movie, but it's not a hyperkinetic chase movie. The story follows Eric, who has stopped at a pub for drink. It has been ten years since the collapse of civilization and the world is a dangerous place. People enforce their own individual sovereignty with force. As Eric drinks, a trio of desperadoes fresh from an encounter with what's left of the police crash their car outside and then steal Eric's car. Eric gets the trio's own vehicle running and chases them. They slip away and he's left inquiring in sinister small enclaves. He's not polite about it. Along the way he encounters the fourth man on the job, Rey, who was left for dead after being wounded. Eric takes Rey to be patched up so that Rey can lead him to his accomplices. The men form an uneasy alliance, especially once it becomes clear that they are not the only people in hot pursuit...
There's a shot near the beginning of The Rover that summarizes its approach to action filmmaking. In this shot, we see Guy Pearce as Eric drinking a beer. Behind him, through a window, we see a car tumble past. This is mostly silent. It's an arresting image and it's typical: This is a film that mutes its action. It doesn't glory in the action. The action in this film is brutal and unpleasant. The people in this film are grimy and unpleasant. This is not a film where the future has been imagined as a punk rock fetish ball. Director David Michôd undoubtedly has the chops for such a thing, but not the temperament. This is as much a character study as the director's previous film, Animal Kingdom. It's equally glum, too. What it shares with its post apocalyptic brethren is a laconic, taciturn protagonist (I can't quite call him a "hero"), but those character traits become something different in this film. Max in the Mad Max films is all rage and those films examine that character only enough to motivate the plot. This film inverts this. The plot is an excuse to examine the ticking of its characters.
The society this film postulates seems eerily credible. It's the slide into anarchy that is the living end of Libertarian thought, in which radical individualism does away with the social contract entirely. It's every man for himself, and what you can take and defend with a gun is what you get from the world. This is a reversal of the Western, which is often concerned with the civilizing of the West. This film shows civilization unraveling, as social institutions like family, government, and law enforcement degrade or vanish. Eric is a man who has become unhitched from the world because he's free to do as he pleases. His searing Mad Max moment isn't when his family is killed by The Other, it's when he himself murders his wife and finds that there are no consequences anymore. He clings to a tenuous humanity, but that humanity is slipping away from him.
As I say, the The Rover is something of a shaggy dog story. Indeed, its title is a pun of sorts. The film plays fair. Its ending isn't unjustified. It sets it up in two scenes. In the first, Eric stops at a brothel and attempts to wheedle information from the woman in charge. Like many of this film's characters, she seems dissociated from the world around her. Her man Friday offers info and a gun for sale. On the way to his trailer to get the gun, he abuses a dog. Eric kills him with the gun rather than pay for it. It's a scene that tends to villainize Eric, but I didn't realize where this fit in with the pattern of the movie at the time. It's a piece that only makes sense in retrospect. In the second scene, Eric and Rey visit to a woman who is acting as a doctor. Eric wants her to patch Rey up enough that Eric can get the location of his brother out of him. Additionally, she collects dogs and cares for them when they're abandoned by their owners. Otherwise, those dogs will be eaten by someone. The film takes a close look at Eric's reaction to discovering the dogs, and then forgets it until the end of the film, when Eric has found his car, murdered all the thieves, and retrieved the contents of the car's trunk. The final scene finds him out in the wilderness with a shovel, burying his dog. He has that much humanity left in him, at least. This is where the film gut-punched me:
Only a few days prior to watching The Rover, we had our family dog put down. She was old. 12 years old for a Labrador retriever is a long life. It was still hard even though my partner and I know that it was time. That trauma was still a raw, bleeding wound for me when I sat down to watch The Rover and had I known what was at the end of the film, I would have chosen not to see it (at least at that point in time). I wasn't in the right frame of mind to watch a man go to such ghastly lengths of violence in order to bury his dog. I understand what the film is getting at: humanity is a hard spark to extinguish even in the hollowest of hollow men. But, man, let me tell you, this was hard for me to watch without it breaking something inside me.
People react to movies in different ways. Some of them are intensely personal.
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