There have been so many dark, dirty post-apocalyptic thrillers lately it's become hard to tell them all apart. Cue dusty, sun-scorched locale, abandoned cars by the side of the road, guys in shaggy beards and dirty tank tops. And violence. Lots of bloody, ugly violence almost too brutal to fathom. Clichés are a fact of life in Hollywood but one would expect David Michod, the director the supremely confident Aussie gangster flick Animal Kingdom, to provide a little something off the beaten path for his follow-up, The Rover. And while he pulls one haunting performance from a familiar face and a solid turn from an unexpected one, the film offers little to separate it from the likes of Mad Max, The Road, or numerous others mining the same ground.
Movies set in a future resembling a burned out husk have long been the bastion of indie filmmakers looking to skirt around budgetary issues, and if "burned out husk" is what one is looking for then the south Australian outback requires the minimum of alteration. In short, it's a desolate place, perfect for a story of men frayed at the edges, ruined by a society that crumbled a decade prior. There are still laws, albeit nobody to really enforce them. Money is practically worthless, food at a premium and petrol even more so. Mercenaries stalk the streets, crucified men litter the highways, and basically every encounter could be your last. Familiar or not, Michod paints a terrifying picture of a hopeless world.
Guy Pearce, hiding behind a thick beard and far-away eyes, is Eric, a man without a past, certainly without much of a future, and only one possession and that's his car. After stopping by a nearby "bar" for a drink, his car is stolen by three shady types (one is played by Scoot McNairy) clearly on the getaway from something. Eric stalks them down in another vehicle, only to have them get the upper hand and flee, once again in his car. The rest of the film is about this mysterious man's tunnel vision in getting the car back and gaining some measure of revenge on those who took it.
First he encounters the simple-minded Rey (Pattinson), who was shot and left for dead by his brother, one of the guys Eric is seeking out. The film relies heavily on the bonding between these two, which has moments of gallows enlightenment as they kill their way to where Eric's car is stashed. “You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken. That’s the price you pay for taking it", Eric says during one of their many roadside conversations. Eric doesn't speak much, hardly at all really, but when he does it's to say things like this. And they would have considerably more meaning if Michod, who co-wrote the script with Joel Edgerton, had a clearer definition for the character. Bodies pile up, mostly for no good reason and largely at Eric's hand, and he doesn't seem the least bit concerned about them. In one memorable moment, he buys a pistol from a little person only to shoot him with it immediately after, basically out of annoyance. At some point the bleak locale has become an excuse to portray excessive levels of violence without having to be concerned about why there is so much bloodshed. Michod offers no real reason for anything, and it's too much to say the film is about nothingness. That's not true. The utterly pretentious "twist" ending tells us Michod wants it to be about something, he just never gets around to letting us in on what it is. A small hint of sentimentality emerges through the harshness and it feels utterly misplaced and unearned. Like Animal Kingdom, Michod specializes in establishing mood, especially the desolation that follows bad people who live a life of doing terrible things.
Pearce should be getting more leading roles but he seems to favor show-stopping supporting turns at this point. In a rare starring turn he's especially gruff and haunted. It's not a part that requires much from him yet he delivers what's expected and more. The more interesting performance is by Pattinson who has basically jettisoned Hollywood limelight behind to flex his dramatic muscles with indie directors. So far it hasn't really worked out, and it doesn't really work out here either. With his teeth a mangled mess and his nerves all jittery, Pattinson's portrayal of Rey is too practiced, too aware. What's impressive is Pattinson's dedication to the role and willingness to branch out into something like this in the first place.
Animal Kingdom was a confident debut that promised Michod as a bright new filmmaking voice. Too much of that voice has been silenced with The Rover but he should have no problem regaining it next time.