Everybody has that line within themselves that they will not allow anyone or anything to cross, and if that happens, there will be hell to pay. Of course, revenge is an easy fantasy in which to indulge oneself; the real thing is a fair bit more difficult, a dirty business that either leaves one broken by the act, or is carried out by those already broken. How much of us survives after we have decided to enforce our own justice upon the world is stuck somewhere between more than we deserve and less than what we expect, and it is this condition that drives one of the most compelling revenge stories in recent history: The Rover.
The story takes place in the Australian outback in what could pass for modern day. It has been a decade since a global financial crisis has destroyed the world economy and reduced much of Australia to poverty and lawlessness. Roving gangs of armed criminals prowl the roads looking for easy scores, while military patrols show up less and less frequently in their vain attempt to prevent the final disintegration of law and order. Into this, we meet Eric, a taciturn and hard-edged loner who stops off at a roadside bar to get a drink before continuing his journey. While he is there, a gang of robbers on the run steal Eric’s car and flee with it. Eric appears to have nothing left to his name and gives chase, willing to endure any beating or hardship to get that car back. Along the way, he picks up Rey, one of the robbers who has been abandoned by the gang because of his wounds, and who is mentally disabled, to boot. With little love for each other but a common cause, Eric and Rey travel across the blighted remains of the postmodern Outback on a quest to find Rey’s gang and make them pay for what they have done. It is a bloody journey that provides ample evidence that sometimes revenge and justice simply aren’t the same thing, and that the crimes we commit to address the crimes done to us don’t weigh against each other.
The Rover is a tense, uncompromising thriller that in many ways is about as stripped-down as a movie can get. The setting itself is a ragged wireframe of what society used to be. The characters have all been sandblasted by the harshness of life itself while Australia downshifts through dystopia. And the story is about as simple as they come: man gets ripped off, man goes after the robbers, man gets what’s coming to him. There is very little padding here, either to make this story run on a more accommodating course, or to soften the harsh truths it presents. This isn’t necessarily a hard movie to watch, but it is about some very hard people doing very hard time in what have become very hard lives. And that alone requires a little fortitude on the part of the viewer.
That, of course, is this movie’s central attraction. The Rover successfully draws upon a number of well-worn genres—mainly Westerns, post-apocalypse adventure and revenge thrillers—all of which share enough common thematic elements to blend effortlessly into each other. As the solitary antihero seeking his own kind of justice, Eric is a familiar enough trope from these aforementioned frameworks. But what sets him apart is how we get to see that he isn’t a guy driven to violence by cruel circumstance. Eric is just a violent man with a gut full of simmering rage that in a more civilized time would have spent his life in prison. But here? Here, he’s a kind of almost-hero only because he’s mostly surrounded by people who are far more despicable than he is. And the worst part about it is that he knows it; half his rage at the world around him seems to be that it lets him do what he does at all. His kind of character is supposed to be somebody else’s problem. What kind of world is this where he is part of the solution?
The same goes for his companion Rey, who is a career criminal, sure, but he is also so mentally compromised that he retains a kind of innocence throughout all of this, like a scared dog stuck outside in the middle of a thunderstorm that simply will not end. The thing he has had taken from him is any certainty that he is worth loving. When he is abandoned by his gang, he isn’t just a spurned criminal looking to get back at his former colleagues. He is a man rejected by his family in a way that confirms his worst vision of himself. Once we understand that, we begin to forgive how readily he resorts to a gun to solve his problems. But it is just a beginning. Nothing more.
As Eric and Rey travel the road in search of Eric’s car, the people they meet and the things they do underscore a central tragedy to the proceedings. In this setting, we have a society just barely holding itself together, which means that it also affords people to reinvent themselves however they like. Even with such threadbare restrictions, both Eric and Rey are outsiders, condemned by their central characteristics to never really fit in anywhere. It doesn’t matter if they had met in the 1820s, the 1920s or the 2020s; as soon as these two crossed paths, they compound the worst in each other’s conditions, dooming themselves to a end that gives little satisfaction. We only think that their mutual quest for revenge is what drives them into such woe. It isn’t. It is that they met at all. And nowhere do we see that more clearly than when we get to the movie’s heartbreaking moment of truth, and in the final frames, we really see what Eric’s vengeance was really all about. It wasn’t the car.