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Cannes 2014: The Rover

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Cannes 2014: The Rover film still

Australian director David Michôd doesn't disappoint with his beautifully bleak second feature.

"What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age," purrs Grandma, a woman whose deep, quasi-psychotic stares speak louder than her creepily soft words, just like Jacqui Weaver’s character in director David Michôd’s superb previous, Animal Kingdom. Grandma is a businesswoman and her merch is young boys, "with skin soft as your forearm." Such is the grimness of this post-apocalypse Australia that the seaminess her line of work barely registers a reaction in Eric (Guy Pearce), a grizzled drifter who is hellbent on finding his car which was stolen by a rag-tag trio of desperadoes. He points a gun at Grandma in the name of getting her to help. Her context-aware response is the closest any of the characters get to acknowledging what has become of their lives.

This near-future wasteland is, we are told, 20 years after "The Collapse". Houses and shops have become dilapidated dust shacks and the scattering of remaining humans are left to bake in the heat with one hand on their shooters. We’re 28 days into the 28 Days Later scenario, but instead of zombies, it is people who have wiped each other out in a 'Lord of the Flies'-style descent into mistrust and savagery. Yet even in a nihilistic shoot-before-you-think dystopia, Eric still wants his car back enough to track down its appropriators. His ace in this pursuit is the brother of one of the thieves, Rey (Robert Pattinson), an injured hillbilly half-wit who happens to be the only person alive who hasn't morphed into a terminator.

The Rover is a haunting story conceived by Michôd and Joel Edgerton (Baz in Animal Kingdom). The story pacing and cinematography is sublimely assured. As Eric and Rey make their way across the deathly plains of some misc Aussie dustbowl towards the film's delightful pay-off, Michôd makes it feel like there is all the time in the world. He has a talent for the self-contained set piece. In Animal Kingdom it was Ben Mendelsohn watching his nephew’s girlfriend sleep with wrongdoing on his mind. Here, there are many to choose from, with great moments spread like water bottles along a marathon route. One is Rey sitting alone on the eve of a bloody confrontation singing along to a catchy teeny-bopper song on a car radio. Michod lets it play out. The depiction of idle pleasure in this fallen universe borders on the exquisite.

Performances are pitched just right between hard-bitten and mournful. Guy Pierce, as all know, has stoically grizzled down to a fine art, while Pattinson manages his new non-heart-throb ground (the make-up team have wrought merry hell on his teeth) with admirable pathos. His limp, hick accent, facial tics and staccato delivery play second, third, fourth and fifth fiddle to a whole lot of heart, and one that Eric cannot help but fall for. If there’s one thing this violent metaphysical drama emphasises it’s that heart is, when all else fails, a man’s best friend.

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