Dystopian nightmare

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

THE ti­tle is odd. “Rover” con­jures up 19th-century aris­to­cratic in­dul­gence, an el­e­gant wan­derer with a “rov­ing” eye. Noth­ing, of course, could be fur­ther from the mood or set­ting of The Rover, David Mi­chod’s fol­low-up to his bril­liantly dis­turb­ing de­but, An­i­mal King­dom, which is set in the bleak en­vi­ron­ment of a ru­ined Aus­tralia “10 years af­ter the col­lapse”. Ex­actly what caused the col­lapse is one of many el­e­ments with­held from the viewer, but the re­sult seems to be that the Out­back is peo­pled by an in­ter­na­tional as­sort­ment of gun-tot­ing vagrants. US dol­lars are the only ac­cept­able cur­rency; seedy, run-down bars and broth­els are run by heav­ily armed Asians; squalor and sud­den death go hand in hand.

Our en­try into this dystopian world is through Eric, played with grim sto­icism by a griz­zled Guy Pearce, who, we learn, was once a farmer. Quite what he is now isn’t cer­tain: as he sits in his car out­side a grotty bar, from which Chi­nese mu­sic em­anates, he seems de­feated, lost — not a rover so much as a loner.

When his car is stolen by three vi­o­lent crim­i­nals, Henry (Scoot McNairy), Archie (David Field) and Caleb (Tawanda Many­imo) he sets out af­ter them ac­com­pa­nied by Rey (Robert Pat­tin­son), Henry’s wounded and aban­doned brother. Ob­ses­sively de­ter­mined to re­trieve his property at all costs, Eric goads a re­luc­tant Rey into re­veal­ing his brother’s des­ti­na­tion, but the jour­ney there is fraught with dan­ger and en­coun­ters with other sur­vivors of this stark and dev­as­tated land­scape.

These in­clude an evil old woman (Gil­lian Jones) who earns money from pimp­ing chil­dren and a lonely but still ded­i­cated doc­tor (Su­san Prior), the only women we see dur­ing the grim jour­ney.

In sim­ple terms, The Rover com­bines two favourite movie gen­res, the road movie and the odd cou­ple/buddy movie. Though he has rel­a­tively lit­tle di­a­logue, Pat­tin­son suc­cess­fully ex­tends his range as a teen heart-throb with his down and dirty por­trayal of a fee­ble-minded crim, while the al­ways re­li­able Pearce is ev­ery­thing that could be re­quired from his enig­matic pro­tag­o­nist.

The screen­play, which Mi­chod wrote based on a story writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with ac­tor Joel Edger­ton, is a strong ba­sis for a vis­ually im­pres­sive film, but it’s not in the same class as An­i­mal King­dom, where the all-too-con­vinc­ing por­trait of a di­a­bol­i­cal sub­ur­ban fam­ily car­ried res­o­nances that re­mained long af­ter the film ended. The Rover is dra­mat­i­cally more con­ven­tional, but it’s su­perbly han­dled. Mi­chod’s di­rec­tion is con­fi­dent and al­ready at this early stage in his ca­reer he’s a mas­ter at cre­at­ing sus­pense. The film’s im­pres­sive look is thanks to the in­ter­est­ing se­lec­tion of Ar­gen­tinian cin­e­matog­ra­pher Natasha Braier, whose out­sider’s look at Aus­tralia’s Out­back re­flects a sim­i­lar ap­proach taken in films such as Wake in Fright.

So much of The Rover is so good that the pre­dictable and frankly corny con­clu­sion comes as some­thing of a dis­ap­point­ment, but de­spite that this tough, vi­o­lent and starkly im­pres­sive thriller suc­ceeds in its main aim, which is to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat. I FIRST en­coun­tered the Amer­i­can au­thor Pa­tri­cia High­smith when I saw Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Strangers on a Train, which was adapted from her first novel. Sub­se­quently sev­eral of her books, most of which con­tain ho­mo­sex­ual un­der­tones, have been filmed, in­clud­ing two ver­sions of The Tal­ented Mr. Ri­p­ley and two of Ri­p­ley’s Game. The Two Faces of Jan­uary is not one of her bet­ter-known books and I hadn’t read it be­fore see­ing the film ver­sion, which marks the di­rec­to­rial de­but of writer Hos­sein Amini, whose screen­plays have in­cluded The Wings of the Dove, Jude and Ni­co­las Wind­ing Refn’s Drive.

Like many High­smith sto­ries, this one deals with Amer­i­cans hol­i­day­ing in Europe and dis­cov­er­ing an un­der­cur­rent of cor­rup­tion and vi­o­lence. It be­gins in Athens in 1962 where an un­scrupu­lous young Amer­i­can, Ry­dal (Os­car Isaac), works as an un­of­fi­cial guide and not only fleeces his cus­tomers but se­duces the pretty ones. When he of­fers to guide Ch­ester (Viggo Mortensen) and Co­lette MacFar­land (Kirsten Dunst), a wealthy and so­phis­ti­cated Amer­i­can cou­ple, he has, as al­ways, his eye on the main chance — and es­pe­cially on Co­lette. But Ch­ester isn’t who he seems to be, and Ry­dal soon finds him­self help­ing to dis­pose of a body and guid­ing the cou­ple on an un­ex­pected and dra­matic jour­ney to Crete.

As she did in Strangers on a Train, High­smith has cre­ated a pair of men who are al­most mir­ror im­ages of one an­other, one es­sen­tially de­cent, the other not, but both some­how in­ter­change- able. This helps ex­plain the enig­matic ti­tle — the sec­ond this week — in that Janus, af­ter whom the month of Jan­uary is named, has two faces. Amini’s han­dling of this grip­ping drama makes the film in­trigu­ing even when some of the plot de­vel­op­ments stretch the bound­aries of be­lief, and the film boasts three very strong per­for­mances in the leading roles.

THE Face of Love is an old-fash­ioned melo­drama that could have been made in the 1940s with ei­ther Bette Davis or Joan Craw­ford in the lead role. In the event, An­nette Ben­ing most ca­pa­bly takes cen­tre stage as Nikki, a widow who can’t get over the fact her beloved hus­band, Gar­rett (Ed Har­ris), drowned while they were cel­e­brat­ing their 30th wed­ding an­niver­sary at a Mex­i­can beach re­sort. At home in LA, fend­ing off the ad­vances of her wid­ower neigh­bour, Roger (Robin Wil­liams), and miss­ing her daugh­ter, Sum­mer (Jess Weixler), who lives in Seat­tle, Nikki is star­tled to en­counter a man who is the spit­ting im­age of Gar­rett.

Con­fused yet elated, she fol­lows the man in ques­tion, who proves to be Tom (also Ed Har­ris), a pain­ter who teaches art at a lo­cal col­lege, and they be­gin a re­la­tion­ship.

At this point, Nikki — in­stead of han­dling the sit­u­a­tion in a sen­si­ble way and ex­plain­ing to Tom about Gar­rett — starts fab­ri­cat­ing and ob­scur­ing the truth. Her hus­band left her, she says: his wife left him, he replies. Once she’s started to lie, Nikki has a great deal of dif­fi­culty con­ceal­ing Tom from the people who knew Gar­rett, in­clud­ing Roger and, when she makes a sur­prise visit, Sum­mer.

It’s pretty ob­vi­ous that the film­mak­ers have seen Ver­tigo too many times; not only does a poster from Hitch­cock’s clas­sic fea­ture promi­nently in one scene but whole sec­tions of the plot evoke the 1958 film. It says some­thing for the ex­cel­lent work of Ben­ing, Har­ris and Weixler that this ba­si­cally ab­surd melo­drama suc­ceeds as well as it does.

The Face of Love stars Ed Har­ris and An­nette Ben­ing, left; Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst in The Two Faces of Jan­uary

Guy Pearce and Robert Pat­tin­son in the starkly im­pres­sive film The Rover

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