David Michod’s post-apocalyptic follow-up to Animal Kingdom (2010), The Rover (2014), opens with the words ‘ten years after the collapse’. Global crisis has hit and a state of emergency has been called. Australia and its natural resources are under American occupation.
Further explanation of the plot or analysis of the sparse yet exposition-heavy dialogue is unnecessary. All you really need to know about The Rover is that it takes place in the Australian Outback.
The Outback as an unnerving, expansive terrain has played a major role in Australian cinema since cameras first captured it. The colour palette varies from the heightened orange and yellow ochre earth that’s fetishised for the tourism industry in Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955) and Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) to the pulsating heat trapped in the truer shades of brown and red that bloody incarnations like Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) and Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) offer.
Now we have duller khakis and beiges. The colours that we glimpsed in Mad Dog Morgan (Philippe Mora, 1976), we see again in The Rover, only they’re exaggerated, drained in a way that doesn’t suggest drought so much as a land suffering malnourishment, divested of its vitamins and minerals. The result is much darker. Michod’s nightmare vision of the future is encapsulated in an endless grey horizon, stretching farther than the eye can see.
Everything is covered by a thin layer of dust. It sticks to cars, buildings, cables, milk crates and the sweat of a man’s brow. The first face we see is Eric’s – though we don’t yet know his name. It’s Guy Pearce, one of Australia’s most recognisable actors. His name is not important because all that we need to know about him we learn through studying the sun spots and burst capillaries on his hardened face. He looks mean and bedraggled. What he’s doing in the unnamed space doesn’t matter, either, because we know he’s at boiling point as he sips water in a rest stop that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tarantino film.
The place itself could be anywhere. It is never named and it doesn’t need to be. The one thing we know inherently about the Outback is what defines it – it’s not the city and it’s far from there. ‘Far’ in Australia is already a loaded term. For the viewer, ‘far’, in screen terms, means somewhere we can’t get to quickly or safely. We know there is trouble on the road ahead but we sit and we travel that path anyway because the journey – no matter how arduous – will tell us something we want to know.
On the way – and where he’s going doesn’t matter either – Eric encounters a number of people who collectively offer a depressing, even terrifying vision, of what the Outback represents. It’s not lawlessness – for one thing, we know that the Americans are in charge. We also learn a little later that the Australian military work for the Americans in remote areas – what one officer boorishly refers to as ‘Abo Town’. Beyond that there is also the law of the land: the Out-law as it were. The misfits, kind hearts, protectors, perpetrators and cruelty that the city expelled: they all dwell somewhere in the Outback. Eric encounters them one after another before showing us this landscape’s true terror: everyone falls in line sooner or later.
There are many ways to die in the Outback, and life is cheap. But death isn’t the cruellest fate to meet humans. Living with death is much worse. Death is hoisted up onto telegraph poles; it’s left for wild animals to tear at as it rots under the hot sun in open spaces; it’s outside your bedroom door; it comes invited into your home; and, for some, it lives inside as the minutes tick over, whether they lie sleeping or awake.
The Outback’s a Godless place, insomuch as it’s merciless. You can pray but there’s no one around to hear you. And if you’re Aboriginal, you won’t even be granted a voice.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the Outback is that it’s an impossible space. Michod’s filmmaking poses a conundrum: a sense of impending doom is constantly present through Sam Petty’s expertly crafted sound design (the dirty, distorted bass, intense beat of percussion, eerie synth, buzzing insects and singing cicadas) and yet, Eric tells us that it’s all over: ‘A threat means there’s still something left to happen.’
If ‘it’ is truly over already in the Outback then our fear relates to what ‘it’ is. Life? Humanity? Morality? Society? There is a scarcity to all of these things because there is no population density in this place. The more important question, then is, are we really so afraid of ourselves that our biggest fear is being left alone, forced to face what we really are?
Michod asks this, and he leaves enough of the narrative details suspended in ambiguity so that we are forced to search for the answers inside ourselves. And that is a very unnerving place.