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