With 2010’s Animal Kingdom, David Michôd cemented his name as not just one of Australia’s top directors, but one of the most compelling young directors out there. A dark, sweeping family saga of revenge, regret, and ruthlessness, Animal Kingdom cut a bloody swath through the Australian underworld, leaving audiences breathless and breakout star Jacki Weaver with a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination to boot. Now, Michôd is back with a seemingly bleak sophomore effort, The Rover, a stark, existential western of sorts that takes place in an all-too-real vision of a post-economic collapse Australia, a lawless country where only the strong survive. But make no mistake — this isn’t The Road Warrior; rather, The Rover is the tale of us a lone drifter (Guy Pearce) in pursuit of a gang of bandits who rob him of his only possession in the world, his car. Armed with a pistol, an Ahab-like focus, and the simple yet sweet, wounded brother the bandits left behind (Robert Pattinson), the drifter stalks the land on a mad quest for justice that makes for a viewing experience that is equal parts compelling and harrowing.
In spite of his success and newfound cache, Michôd is a humble, often self-deprecating man, one who cannot seem to believe his own luck. I was able to attend a reception with the director following a press screening of The Rover last week. “That was weird. That was me basically standing around, assuming everyone was lying to me,” the director replied drily with a laugh. It’s difficult to imagine what they’re lying about, though, because Michôd’s follow-up effort is anything but disappointing.
Like Animal Kingdom, The Rover puts human nature under the microscope, particularly those darker impulses that many of us try to suppress rather than embrace. What draws Michôd to these dark vestiges of the human condition? “I wonder the same thing myself. I’m sure, on a really sort of basic, impossibly pretenious level, I think what you’re looking at in the films is me just exploring my own fear, you know,” said Michôd.
Certainly, there’s plenty to be afraid of in the pre-apocalyptic vision he’s dreamed up in The Rover, but what makes the director tick? “My fear of my own death, my fear of the impending oblivion, and fear of what all of this nonsense means, to the extent that it’s about my fear of human intimacy or whatever,” he explained. “These are the things – they manifest in the form of dark violence and sadness in the movies.”
Fear, by its very nature, prompts a fight or flight response in all creatures, human or otherwise, and in The Rover, seemingly everyone chooses “fight”, making for a hectic, often terrifying existence. Yet, the aesthetics of the film suggest that not all is lost. Beautiful desert vistas and rundown buildings fill Michôd’s frames to create a dusty, sunsoaked monument to what was lost and what remains. There’s a tremulous, delicate beauty to the Australian landscape which is thrown into sharp relief against the brutal, anarchic world and the hard characters Michôd has created.
The inspiration for The Rover‘s visual palette came when Michôd was reworking the screenplay during the months following Animal Kingdom. “I was just at the same time thinking quite a lot about the state of the world as it is today,” he said. “The ways in which people will flagrantly despoil it to meet their own needs and desires, and I’m surprisingly led to despair that that might have broken me.” It may seem like a bleak worldview to take, but the director prefers to see it as more of a cautionary tale. “The nature of the world of the movie for me is imagining what the consequences in a few decades time might be of the forces that are bubbling around us as we speak.”
But not everything has to have an overt message, after all. What about art for the sake of art? Perhaps most tellingly, one of the characters in The Rover remarks something along the lines of “Not everything has to be about something.” If nothing else, The Rover is a meditation of what may come, a thumb stuck pages ahead in a grim choose-your-own-adventure book. Still, I wondered what Michôd wanted audiences to take away from their viewing experience. For the director, it begins by looking back to what he’s already done, and his conclusion may just surprise you.
“At the end of the day, for me, The Rover is about love,” the director says matter-of-factly before adding “as strange as that may sound” with a chuckle. For a second, it sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but then it begins to make sense. With The Rover, a lot of these seemingly violent choices or things we see – people are doing what they do out of necessity, whereas in Animal Kingdom, it feels like there is more agency and more choice involved as to some of these darker paths some of these people are walking down. “I actually think Animal Kingdom is a far darker and more bleak movie, because the world you’re left with at the end of Animal Kingdom is a pretty hard and loveless one,” Michôd agreed. That may seem like a strange sentiment given the savagery on display in The Rover, but as he reminded me, “The Rover is actually about people seeking out other people. They’re just doing it in a very dangerous and inhospitable context.”
Lofty thinking and analysis aside, The Rover is, ostensibly, a film about Guy Pearce traveling to the ends of the Earth to get his car back. Naturally, I couldn’t resist being a smirking, reductive so-and-so for a moment, so I was curious as to what would drive Michôd to the ends of the earth. His answer? “My girlfriend.” Thankfully, for all of our sakes, Michôd was able to bring things back around. “[That is] kind of what the movie is about. It’s not really about, obviously, he doesn’t really need his car back. It’s just about him wanting to have some reason to still be alive. What the guys who steal his car present him with is a mission of sorts, albeit highly meaningless.”
Whatever the reason may be, I am glad that Michôd took the time to craft this roiling slow burn of a film. Like a rotgut whiskey, it’s harsh and abrasive at first, but once the initial unpleasantness passes, there’s a comforting warmth that spreads across your body. Unlike cheap liquor, though, The Rover is something best savored as it is likely to stay with you for quite some time.
David Michôd’s The Rover comes to theaters on Friday, June 13.
Have you seen Animal Kingdom? Looking forward to David Michôd’s follow-up? Let us know in the comments below.