Two wonderfully atmospheric films screening Out of Competition at Cannes this year, The Rover from Australia and El Ardor from Argentina, take a look at the savagery that happens on the fringes of society.
Where people are scarce, the law can’t protect you, and the only way to survive is to kill. Set in the Australian desert ten years after “the fall”, David Michôd’s stylish and absorbing The Rover presents a wasteland of dilapidated housing and dusty roads, where people are so desperate they’ll hunt dogs for food. It’s the kind of place where if you can’t afford the price of a gun for sale, you shoot the man selling it. Pablo Fendrik’s much less effective El Ardor, set in the Argentine jungle where men from the city come to hunt subsistence farmers to steal their land, could also be referred to as Gael García Bernal of the Jungle. Bernal plays a man so attuned to the jungle, traversing it barefoot, that even the ever-threatening tigers will lay down and rest in his presence.
The Rover gets going when Eric’s (the understated Guy Pearce) car is stolen by a trio of criminals on the run. He sets out to chase them down in a run-down truck, using his sheer manliness to scare them and find them: at least at first, they’re armed, and he’s not. After an amusing confrontation, he finds himself left behind, trying to figure out where they went, when he encounters the ring-leader’s brother, Rey (an intense and enthralling Robert Pattinson), who was left to die at the crime-scene from a gunshot wound. Since Rey knows where they’re going, Eric decides to drag him along as his guide. Rey and Eric, who start off not much liking each other, and spend the film covered in a thick layer of dirt, start to depend on each other, in a relationship that develops not unlike that of adversaries Wade and Evans in “3:10 to Yuma”, although with much sparser dialogue. As this happens, Michôd also shifts the tone, from an ominous journey to a buoyant revenge trip.
Michôd propels The Rover at a deliberate pace, relishing the scenery of the outback, and the eccentrics that live there. What’s great about these characters, about whom we learn only a little bit at a time, is that they don’t fit into archetypes we’re used to in this kind of genre film: part road buddy movie, part western. Rey seems to be developmentally disabled, and Pattinson moves spasmodically and slouchily, a real physical transformation from all his other parts. In a film usually scored eclectically by Anthony Partos, as something of a modern western, it’s quite the amusing surprise when we suddenly find Rey singing along to “Pretty Girl Rock” on the radio, adding layers to the character.
But what The Rover is likely not to get enough credit for is its female characters. There’s the doctor (Susan Prior) who works the land, no longer in need of money, unafraid to point a shotgun. And there’s the old madam, referred to as Grandma (Jillian Jones), who talks in riddles, and whose only reaction to having a gun pointed at her head is to call the man rude and insist on finding out his name. Perhaps more surprisingly, is that even though Eric and Rey are ever the stoic men, they’re evolved enough to treat these nuanced women without misogyny.
In El Ardor, a trio of people and land hunters, who want to build a factory in the picturesque jungle, turn up to kill a family and seize their land. The brutes think they’ve left no survivors, except for the beautiful daughter of the owner, Vania (Alice Braga) whom they kidnap. But the elusive Kaí (Gael García Bernal) has been watching the destruction from a hiding place inside the house. What follows is rather predictable: he rescues the girl and then must save the land. Since this is a world where people would rather kill than negotiate, there’s only one way it can end. The final sequence is a bit like a low-tech version of the end of Skyfall.
Fendrik shoots this like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie — The African Queen comes to mind — with a largely still camera and long cuts for a thriller. He also focusses more on the suggestion of trouble than the brutality itself. When Alice gets taken by the men, there’s a scene where we cut menacingly between one of them salivating, and a close-up of the water she’s drinking from a jug pouring down her chest.
This also means the film is populated with cliches: we watch the second-in-command very obviously tape the (forcibly signed) Chekhov’s deed to the land to his chest. Vania is only even taken hostage by the men because she just. can’t. keep. quiet. in her hiding place. Even though she’s watching these clearly savage men who will stop at nothing. And of course, because she’s the pretty damsel, and the always beautiful Bernal, even with a rat-tail, spends most of the movie shirtless, you just know what’s going to happen between the two.
The film, which pits the rural farmers against the evil city men, and was produced by Jeff Skoll at Participant Media (An Inconvenient Truth), has a strange metaphorical, almost environmental, or even anti-colonial, message to it. Kaí talks about how when his own land was taken, he tried to move to the city, but couldn’t do it, seeing what becomes of men there; he swam back to the jungle. Because we often see wide shots of the scenery, as well as close-ups of even the insects that populate the jungle, this is clearly an ode to the beauty of nature, bemoaning the thoughtless destruction often perpetrated by urbanites. But it’s also so stylized and over-the-top, that it’s hard to take any serious message it might be aiming at with more than a grain of salt, which is a shame.