“Australia. 10 years after the collapse” reads the opening title card. We never get a clear picture as to what caused this collapse, and wisely so. The few hints writer/director David Michôd provides do much more to fuel our imagination to fill in the gaps – it doesn’t matter how this world came to be, what matters is how to navigate it. This is where Michôd’s mastery of tone and setting come into play, each small detail – the worn down landscape, US currency being the only valid currency, hiding dogs inside so people don’t steal and eat them – adding to the unforgiving landscape in the story by Michôd and Joel Edgerton.
The first shot we see of Guy Pearce’s Eric finds his face covered in flies as if he’s already dead. It’s fitting, because he pretty much is dead all but physically when we find him. He sits alone in a bar blasting music for an audience that has long since abandoned it. The moment of solice is broken as some thieves, led by injured Henry (Scoot McNairy), crash outside and in the heat of the moment break into Eric’s car and steal it to escape. Eric manages to get their abandoned car quickly running and chases after them with near-suicidal determination. He soon crosses paths with Henry’s also-injured brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) – abandoned and left for dead by Henry after an unspecified shootout – and after taking him to a doctor, forces Rey to lead him to his brother and his car. You spend much of the film wondering what’s so important about his car, even one of the characters remarks “What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age” as she is offering him the right to an unspeakable act as casually as offering a cigarette. To reveal why he wants his car so badly wouldn’t necessarily ruin the film’s plotting, but it would ruin your emotional response to it.
Guy Pearce doesn’t even speak until about 5-10 minutes into the film, and he doesn’t need to beforehand. Everything about his physicality does the introductions for him. His face bares a history of sorrow and hardship, forging him into the grizzled uncaring survivor he is today. His walk is almost a quasi-limp across one entire side of his body, creating an animalistic manner in his stance. When Pearce does speak you listen, each word delivered with shades of malice, apathy, sorrow and all around weariness. He commands each frame he’s in, a harsh man alone in a harsh world. I honestly can’t recall the last time I watched a film that wasn’t benefited by Pearce’s presence.
Robert Pattinson is on a roll. He’s managed to emerge from the career-damning roles of the Twilight series and use his fame to get smaller projects like this film, two films with David Cronenberg with Werner Herzog and Anton Corbijn pictures on the way funded. Coming off his enjoyable turn as an apathetic asset manager in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, he gives perhaps his most transformative performance to date. He sports an incredibly convincing southern drawl along with a simpleminded if not dimwitted outlook as Rey. Each line you see him strain himself past the tics and stutters in his character to try his best to think for himself, something he’s never really done before. Pattinson brings a tragic desperation and youthfulness to Rey, and it contrasts well with Pearce’s evaporated and emaciated outlook.
The chemistry between Pattinson and Pearce is palpable, as they grow from stuck together out of necessity to eventually needing and somewhat trusting each other. The relationship between the two is nothing that hasn’t been done before, but done believably here nonetheless due to Pattinson and Pearce’s presence. The always-terrific Scoot McNairy plays the small role of Henry, but fills each frame of his with a long history of compromises and regrets. Michôd casts his supporting roles well. There’s a certain ugliness that hangs over the populace of this world, as if begat from the very harsh landscape around them. This ugly world has created some ugly faces to occupy it.
Coming off of 2010’s Animal Kingdom – one of my favorite films this decade – Michôd brings a similar visceral and threatening approach to this film as he did with his debut. Michôd and cinematographer Natasha Braier pace out each shot with quiet but profoundly felt tension. Each shot is crafted to provide an air of foreboding, that anything terrible could happen at any time. The landscape of Australia is indifferent to the troubles of humanity, always persistent in its harshness. Braier and Michôd photograph the landscape with an emphasis on all this, but with such mesmerizing composition.
The score by Antony Partos suggests something much more primal than any sort of future we can imagine. It’s effective, because as the landscape proves, the collapse has unearthed the primal in humanity. You get the sense that no matter what has happened in history, this landscape has always been harsh and unforgiving all the way throughout time. We have returned to the origins that this landscape was intended for, and the score is guiding us to it. The film handles it’s violence well, showing both the leadup to it and the repercussions of it evenhandedly –accenting that much of it is mindless, but necessary in this world. Each gunshot pierces the screen, causing you to jump. None of it is glorified, each bullet shown to cause gruesome damage. To beautify any of it would be to take away from the immediate threat of living in this world.
One of the most bizarrely effective scenes comes in the form of Keri Hilson. The song “Pretty Girl Rock” starts playing over the scene preceding its diegetic use, and a smirk comes across the audience as anything by Keri Hilson is beyond tonally oppositional to this film. Then we come to the song’s true scene as Rey starts singing along, and who cannot crack a laugh at the sight of Robert Pattinson shyly singing to not hate him because he’s beautiful? As this is all happening, something much more heartbreaking seeps through underneath. It’s a sharp reminder that despite the macho talk Rey brags with at one point in the film, Rey is still just a young man, and he still has hope for something better in this world. Where Eric has no interest in anything this world has to offer, Rey still has taste in music – a simple reminder of a life that was robbed from him. The scene goes from wry dark comedy to absolutely heart-wrenching without the audience aware of the manipulation – a small mark of Michôd’s directorial prowess.
Some may watch the ending and ask “All this for that?” It’s not that simple with Michôd though, as he portrays the ending as a small link to a better world. This film is more about the few possessions and links to the past world that people have than the possessions and links that they lost on their way here.