David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) Talks David Michôd’s The Rover

I’ve been obsessing a bit over the fact that David Michôd’s new film, The Rover, takes place in the future. “10 Years After the Collapse”...

I’ve been obsessing a bit over the fact that David Michôd’s new film, The Rover, takes place in the future. “10 Years After the Collapse,” a title card tells us at the outset, before we’re dropped into the sweltering barrens of Australia, a world in which time doesn’t hold much sway. The world this film takes place in is scarcely different from what we’ve seen in pictures like Mad Max on the one hand or The Proposition on another. Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 masterpiece, Wake in Fright, feels just as apocalyptic as this film, and it took place in the ostensible present-day in which it was made. Were that same “10 Years After” card placed before Nic Roeg’s Walkabout, it would neither feel terribly out of place, nor would it have much of a contextual impact on what happens in that film. In effect, Michôd has sidestepped whatever troubles the future has in store by setting his story in a landscape where survival has always come at a premium. His narrative is sparse and brutal, but that’s less a stylistic choice than a necessity enforced by milieu.

Now, if one were so inclined, one might apply that title card to Eric, the film’s protagonist, and perhaps find that it resonates on an equally meaningful level. Played by Guy Pearce, Eric has certainly endured a collapse of some sort; by the time we meet him, he’s hollowed-out, steely-eyed and brutal in his pragmatism, and as short on words as this sort of archetype always is. In the opening scene, his car is stolen by some bumbling thieves; he sets out to reclaim it at all costs. That is the plot of the film. Robert Pattinson plays Rey, a simple-minded redneck who ascends the ranks from Eric’s hostage to accomplice. There is a great deal of brutal gun violence, most of it perpetrated by our (anti)hero. Sometimes Michôd seems to be willfully testing the limits of his audience’s sympathy, but in truth Eric is a bit of a softie. He has standards, and the most moving scenes in the film are the ones in which he is flummoxed by their dissolution. He doesn’t understand why the same people who might turn a blind eye to murder still give a damn about paper currency, for example.There’s no equivalency; it doesn’t make sense to him, and out of his frustration The Rover finds its pulse.

But let’s get back to the future of it all. That the film takes place when it does implies an imminent regression, as is typical in post-apocalyptic tales. Eric holds humanity to a higher mean, but Michôd compounds our sympathies by making him a bad person. A fine trick, a way to complicate any inevitable reflection on the implications of the film, but here’s where I must admit something: while I was watching the movie, I couldn’t stop thinking about its website. A24 Films has taken that “10 Years After” title card and run with it, creating a comprehensive appendix of the decade leading up to the point at which Michôd’s story begins, and there is vastly more story in this compendium than there is in the actual movie. This is not a slight against the film – the movie is what it is and does what it does, and is successful on both counts. But the website is successful in a different way; it is a richly thought-out, well-designed and compelling history. It is as specific as the film is vague, and as such feels oddly independent of the movie it’s designed to promote. It could be an an ancillary narrative to any number of pictures; it could also just as easily be PowerPoint presentation at a global summit on climate change, or some other declamatory congress which the world will turn too blind an eye towards. It is a frighteningly believable projection; it roused my dormant pessimism and made me rueful for the future. And because I contextualize everything through the prism of what I do, I started to question what place making movies might have in the years and decades to come.

Generally, I have no trouble justifying my efforts as a filmmaker. This is what I love doing, and nine days out of 10, love is all I need. There’s a quantifiable good that comes from film: economically, psychologically, hopefully culturally, maybe even spiritually. I do think sometimes about how it is finite, how all the hopes and dreams and work and results will one day matter not a bit, and how in their moment they may not be quite so meaningful a pursuit as, say, being an aid worker in a Third World country. On the other hand, aid workers and those they aide can benefit from art, so I take solace from that and thus follow my self-absorbed train of thought into the future, where I don’t exist and the futility of legacy rears its head. Woody Allen has said that he cares not a whit about what happens to his work after he dies; his films could be burned for all he cares. This is a difficult but mostly healthy perspective, and one which I try to keep in the back of my mind (right alongside Stanley Kubrick’s lengthy explanation as to why he doesn’t like to travel on airplanes) whenever I get a bit too solipsistic.

But what if you’re around to witness civilization’s abandonment of of your life’s work? This is what the website for The Rover made me think about. Is there a place for art – much less motion pictures – in a world where global temperatures rise more than 4°C and drinking water becomes a luxury? Is my chosen path sustainable in our changing world? Can anything I’ve done prepare me or anyone else for what’s right around the corner, and will any of it matter once that corner has been rounded? Does Eric in The Rover give a shit about what movies he saw before the collapse? Does he think back fondly to that day in his youth he when he went to see, say, Neighbors? Does he think about Taxi Driver when he goes to buy a gun from a dwarf, and does that influence in some small way what he does immediately after making that acquisition? If so, apologies on behalf of Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader to the diminutive retailer of that firearm, even though he very likely had it coming to him.

Such prognostication is me at my most selfishly alarmist. Eight days out of nine, I take solace in the possibilities implicit in such marvelous technologies as Solar Roadways and forward-thinking industrialists like Elon Musk (who in the past week announced that he was opening his electric engine patents to all automobile manufacturers), and of course in movies and books and music, all of which bolster the human spirit’s indomitable ability to see the bright side of inarguably awful data. That the world is getting better while also getting worse will either be what dooms us or keeps us going. Perhaps both.

All of this was brought about by a marketing tool for a film that doesn’t reciprocate – not that it has to. For better or worse, The Rover didn’t make me think about the future. It made me think a little bit about the present, which is what science fiction is supposed to do, and it made me think a little bit more about myself, which is what good art in general should strive towards. If a cataclysmic collapse were to happen tomorrow, would I reflect upon or take solace in this work as I struggled to survive? I guess I’m not going to worry about that standard until I have to.

David Lowery is a filmmaker from Texas. His work as a director has been shown at Sundance, SXSW and the Cannes Film Festival, and includes Pioneer, St. Nick and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. As an editor, he has cut such films as Bad Fever, Sun Don’t Shine and Upstream Color, for which he received an Independent Spirit Nomination. As of this writing he is working on a movie about a dragon.