In one of those beautiful moments of convergence that the universe throws my way every so often, this week I had the opportunity to visit the remote outback town of Marree in the same week that David Michôd’s film The Rover was released. This gave me a chance to experience the dreamlike intensity of both the town and the film in the space of a few days; igniting my personal sense of latent curiosity about the vast beauty and pockets of isolation to be found in Australia.
I travelled to South Australia with four actors who performed for students in mining town Roxby Downs and Marree as part of a national tour. If not for my job, the idea of travelling to these towns, about an eight hours drive north of Adelaide, would never have crossed my mind. The three hour drive from Roxby Downs to Marree is basically featureless, apart from shrubbery and the occasional emu or cow. We didn’t realise we had reached the town until we were almost upon it, so flat is the landscape.
Walking around the town’s perimeter on arrival took all of ten minutes and the only signs of life were a few tourists with campervans, some local kids, and one dog.
All of which is to say its it’s the perfect location for a dystopian Australian film focusing on the quiet desperation of a weathered, broken man named Eric, played beautifully by Guy Pearce.
The film is intense, dusty and unrelenting. Its refusal to pander to any of the tropes it could have easily fallen prey to – friendship between two strangers thrown together by circumstance, the coming of age of a naïve young man, meeting quirky residents in the outback – is refreshing and I think owes largely to Michod’s singular vision that largely defies genre expectations.
The film is also weird, and I mean that in the way that the best Australian films can be without veering into cringeworthy territory. The film’s setting of ‘Australia, ten years after the collapse’ seems purposely vague, with no exposition about the circumstances leading to the collapse and the exact nature of the transformed society, but the audience doesn’t need those details. The film is visceral, not cerebral and it is enough to just bear witness to the dreamlike, violent environment inhabited by the people Eric and Rey (played by Robert Pattinson) encounter as they limp, run and shoot their way through caravans, shipping containers and grimy old buildings on their mission to find Eric’s car, stolen by Rey’s brother Henry.
Michôd has created an immediately believable future with characters specific to their context who never veer into caricature. Robert Pattinson’s embodiment of Rey, a twitchy, inarticulate young man abandoned by his brother and two other accomplices, could have been laughable, with his exaggerated Southern accent and dirty, broken teeth prosthetic. But I found myself impressed with the physicality Pattinson brought to the role, and the empathy he inspired despite the mystery around his motivations and his inherent strangeness.
I came away from the film, and my few hours spent in Marree, with a better sense of the sheer isolation experienced by many in this country, in towns where not a lot goes on, apart from the occasional presence of a film crew (scenes in the upcoming sequel The Inbetweeners 2 were apparently shot in the town) or a troupe of travelling actors.
The Australia that we can attempt to know by venturing out of the bubble of existence that is living in and around large cities close to the coast feels inherently mysterious and untamed. The Rover perfectly encapsulates that feeling by refusing to explain itself, by asking the audience to simply be present in the world of the film and surrender themselves to the fear, the heat, the isolation and the sense of peace that a person can feel when they truly seem to be in the middle of nowhere.