Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Rover

Australian minerals. American dollars. Chinese hegemony. 2008, but worse. A thriller, but slow, tense, minimalist, hypnotic as the desert itself. Its formal virtues are so many, it is worth seeing for them alone.

Not enough people saw The Rover, though. I don’t know why, the trailer was incredible. It had a limited release, and even I missed it. Like the characters in the film, I was on the road.

Is there any other type of Australian film than the road film? Or than the post-apocalyptic road film, for that matter? Especially out West, what is the difference between Australia and post-apocalyptic Australia? What isn’t different—the rocks, the heat, the sun, the dry earth, the cruelty, the trucks, the trains, the dusty roads, the only buildings gas stations and police stations and dilapidated bush homes and trailer parks and mining facilities—is as striking as what is. Australia’s founding catastrophe was the desert. Its second was the white man.

We never find out what the collapse was or how it happened, but we can deduce it was of the global economic variety and that it was both total and partial. This is the film’s crucial insight: the coming disaster will not wipe the slate clean. The rich and the powerful will save themselves. The mask will fall. Might will make right. Apocalypse for some, freedom for all. There are already many such places on the earth.

There are still State forces of law and order, and if anything they are more present and oppressive than today, in full body army, zooming through the desert in armed humvees and convoys of black SUVs. They shoot first and ask questions never. They are indistinguishable from all the other armed killers on the road—gangs, mercenaries. It looks a lot like images of US-occupied Iraq.

What is gone is legitimacy. I’m not gonna kill you, says the policeman who arrests the protagonist. We’ve got to have convicts to send to Sydney or they’ll start wondering what they’re paying us for. I don’t care what they do with you—kill you, let you go, bribe your way out, or whatever it is they do out there these days. I’m doing this for me.

Doing what for you? asks the protagonist. The policeman has no response.

The film is full of such silences. It is not just a matter of arthouse good taste. It is the silence of animals.

When not trying to kill each other, people are entirely indifferent to one another’s presence, in a manner that recalls, but exceeds, the mutual indifference of animals with no direct relationship on the food chain. There is communication but no inter-subjectivity. If you ask a person a question—usually, How much?—the answer leaps out of their mouth without thought, but there is no glint of recognition in their eyes, no perceptible modulation in body language tied to things like desire or differences in social status, because those things don’t exist anymore. It’s a dystopian egalitarianism: Every human life is equally worthless, equally dangerous, equally unmotivated. Everyone’s movements are lethargic. It recalls the apathy of survivors of mass bombings, but here the ruin is entirely social.

A lot of people are murdered, and only one of them in the whole film even sees it coming. Otherwise, people put each other down like dogs. They kill without malice, because they are paid to or because they want something and killing is the most convenient way to get it. Sometimes it’s not even clear who is being killed or why. When life has no value, neither has killing.

If only there were a punishment forthcoming which would give it all meaning. Back during the collapse, the protagonist committed a crime of passion, but, because of the general chaos, no one came after him. You do something like I did, that oughta mean something, he says. When killing has no value, neither has life.

Those who don’t steal work in mining or in selling things essential to mining and the social infrastructure, such as it is, that supports it—food, medicine, gasoline, weapons, drugs, sex. Mining is how the country made it through 2008 relatively unscathed, and that’s how it will make it through the apocalypse.

Chinese is subtly ubiquitous. A broken old sign for a carnival is in both English and Chinese—it probably dates from between our real life present and the narrative present of the film. Shipping containers on trains guarded by armed mercenaries are stamped with Chinese text. On pop music radio, we hear the DJ and a caller speaking Chinese. But we don’t see any Chinese people. It’s a strictly economic hegemony. Probably because of that, what people want is American dollars.

Every merchant in the film asks for payment in USD. Fed up, the protagonist asks, What’s wrong with Australian money. They’re pieces of paper, they’re worthless.

But of course the US dollar survives, of course it flourishes. It is the purest form of the purest commodity, and the commodity fetish will survive the apocalypse because it is already of the apocalypse. It’s as if money, like the Terminator, had been sent back in time to crush resistance to its future. When neither life nor death has any value, the value of money will be absolute. The resemblance of the world of The Rover to Hobbes’ state of nature reveals Hobbes to have been theorizing the end, not the origin, of history.

Miscellany: The music is amazing, even if the film is a bit overscored. Guy Pearce gives one of his best performances, but Robert Pattinson, whose turn towards the arthouse I otherwise admire, fails in an in any case worthless role. For the love of God, I wish Scoot McNairy would stop it with the stupid accents. The film loses steam and develops serious pacing problems in connection entirely unnecessary bro-deep dialogue scenes between Pearce and Pattinson. It's overstated at times, thin over all, yet it might have been more ambitious—it has the chops.