Imagine you go to your favorite restaurant and discover a new appetizer. You have to try it. You wait, then order, then wait. Unbeknownst to you, the Chef is on vacation and the intern starts a small fire preparing your meal. “It’s nothing,” he says to the waitress as he hands her your plate. “I’ll have it out in no time.” Meanwhile, you dig into a scrumptious appetizer. It’s not perfect, but it has wet your palate and you can’t wait to round out the experience with an entree (naturally your favorite one). But something has started to smell. By the time you’ve finished your appetizer, the restaurant has burned down.
Such is the experience of watching The Rover.
The Rover is a masterful nihilist parable (i.e. a fable without animals), although that is to dismiss it too easily. Still, it is well worth noticing that the entire story is driven by a nihilist/existentialist sensibility. The landscape (the spiritual one, that is, and a perfect complement to the outback) is a bleak one, and vacant. The film’s tagline describes a near-apocalyptic future, Australia post-economic collapse, another Elysium or The Road or The Book of Eli, etc. Refreshingly, I found these comparisons to be wanting; the movie’s world is certainly one of scarcity but there is plenty to survive on. Perhaps the situation is different in the city, but in the country the sparse population seems to be scraping along okay. Infrastructure (esp. law enforcement) is not absent, but neither prominent. Most pronounced to me was a lack of authority.
Many films reflect hierarchical authority, the kind many people are used to, where the influencers at the top are protected by force and violence and are thus obeyed. This logic holds for government films (obviously) but also for crime dramas, where a para-government organization has the “real” power in a city or village. In The Rover, the really is no authority to speak of. As Judges so eloquently quips, “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6, NRSV).
Did you flinch? I’ll confess it; I often flinch when “Bible verses” are evoked in blogs, essays, statuses, etc. Why is that? Well, a large part of it has to do with my generation being allergic to authority.
Like the Enlightenment, the 21st century has declared (or maybe just noticed) a crisis of authority, a dissatisfaction with the powers that be. Unlike the Enlightenment, we don’t know what the hell to do about it. Enter The Rover, where Eric (Guy Pierce) assigns value to a meaningless quest: he wants to recover his car (the one with three men in it). [GO WATCH THE FILM AT THIS POINT BECAUSE I CAN’T REALLY IGNORE THE PLOT.] From the get-go this is strange, his car is stolen but he picks up a car that is certainly more durable, i.e. invaluable in a Darwinian context. Still, he loves that sedan and is willing to kill for it: over and over and over again. Why? Because human life has no value to him, as a good Sartrean nothing has value unless he ascribes value to it. His car: valuable. People along the way: who cares? To Eric, everyone is dying anyway, or more likely already dead. In a pivotal scene, Eric confesses to his arrester that he murdered his wife and her adulterer, buried them, and then waited to be punished. But no one noticed. His spirit was broken, more precisely, his faith in authority was broken. There was no one to punish him, not in this life anyway, and with no punishment how could any reward be meted out? And with no reward, what’s the point?
The only point possible, therefore, is what you make it out to be. Eric’s turning point, we find out, was ten years ago (that is, if it happened at all). At the beginning of the film, the stage is set as ten years after the collapse. But what was this collapse? An economic collapse, as the film’s marketers would have us believe? A moral collapse? I would say it is a collapse of authority. But let’s dig deeper (and sadly leave our investigation of The Rover. There is so much more that could be said, but just go see it. Bolster your soul first, then go see it. Go to a ballet afterward, or play with your kids. You’ll be okay.).
Walking out of The Rover, I had a pervasive sense that this film didn’t stand alone. Don’t ask me what that means, but I immediately wanted to watch another of Robert Pattinson’s (grown-up) efforts: Cosmopolis. And so I did. The similarities are indeed striking, a disillusioned protagonist goes on a quest for something trivial, in this case a haircut. Along the way, he self-destructs. In Cosmopolis, however, we watch the self-destruction occurs whereas I found in The Rover a sense that this destruction has already occurred. Thus, Cosmopolis functions as something of a prequel, a similar portrait of the modern world which has been eviscerated by economics, by analysis, by the raw power of information. Eric Packer (they even share first names) is bored, engorged, sick of everything he has done which, at the age of 28, is quickly approaching everything that can be done. He is a multi-billionaire and, in what may be the hidden inciting incident, he has just gotten married to a billionairess. He has arrived, therefore he gets in his car and leaves. He is obsessed with death; he knows that the “logical extension of business is murder” and seems to be waiting for his turn to die. As it turns out, his turn is the present, a present which reasserts itself with a vengeance over-against his carefully designed future plans. Packer is defeated; he cannot master the market and he cannot master his wife. He is finished, unlike the taxi drivers he refuses to demarcate his territory, his power, with material possessions and so he falls under the weight of anonymity.
A loose trilogy, I would argue, could be formed by The Wolf of Wall Street, Cosmopolis, and The Rover (in that order). Here we find the rise, fall, and plateau of the modern man, the powerful giant at the crux of his economy. The one who gets it done. I often hear it said that stories like this don’t need to be told, that biographies of the ruthless (fictional or not) are pedantic because the evils of the powerful are plain to see. Why put them under the microscope for two (or three!) hours? Why subject ourselves to that? I think this question is a bit misguided about the purpose of art, but entertaining it I would say two things. First, these films may feature concrete narratives but they, like all good art, offer a reflection of the current culture that spawns them. A nihilist fable may be depressing, but that doesn’t make it meaningless (…) because it is an accurate portrait of the power in the world. If there is one thing nihilism has been correct about, it is that power, like hot air, rises. These portraits, then, of the “men at the top” are insightful in their pairing of societal influence with purposelessness. Indeed, it is fascinating to chart the importance of human connections in these films and the way in which the protagonists rise and fall based on their friendships and enemies, especially as their enemies become those with whom they are most closely associated. I think there is a lesson in ethics there, but either way these films are a stark reminder of how much of the world operates. Perhaps, in a way, they prophetically proclaim the vapidity of the “American dream,” showing that a “rags-to-riches” story can all to easily be played in the opposite direction.
To wrap up, the correct counter-point to my last statement is that I haven’t “responded” the the critique at all but merely rephrased it. This is true; I suppose I did that because I am known to find value in stories that others don’t enjoy. Rephrasing the critiqued in my own words is a form of answer to me. But in the end, I do have to allow that there is something lacking in telling a story of woe and walking away. As I started out describing, it tastes something like a lost meal or a plate of ashes that you wish you hadn’t paid for. It is fashionable to tell fables, to point out something disturbing to the moral sense. Really these should be called parables, but that word has become rather loaded since Christendom. Indeed, it is that precise aversion that I think is so key, as I mentioned earlier we are allergic to authority claims (being disillusioned that they usually entail little more than people speaking loudly). And so our fables, our parables of choice have taken some liberties with the literary traditions in that the “moral of the story” is usually the antithesis, i.e. that there can be no moral to the story. I think artists have become very comfortable investigating stories about the problems of violence so long as there is no resolution (or at least no cheap resolution, which to many is another way to say “no resolution”). Partly, this is due to the fact that it’s hard for us to believe in resolutions. We, standing on sunken giants, have just enough vision to see what hasn’t worked before. Marx had a similar problem when he declared that the specter haunting Europe was communism. As Cosmopolis explores, it increasingly seems that the specter haunting the world is capitalism. So then what exactly should we do? For what do we advocate or preach? Seems like we might as well settle in for a good story and stop pretending there is a way out of the mess we are in.
But I’m a Christian so that isn’t good enough right? Right now, I don’t really know. I believe in the resurrection enough to know that it’s something I can’t imagine. That said, I do believe in resolutions. What I don’t believe in are the resolutions that I can write. In the end, I guess I am uncomfortable with The Rover because it buries hope in a rather sadistic way (sometimes cleverness is just sadism). But I am more comfortable with it than a lot of movies which try to offer hope too concretely and fail to really inspire. What we need is more art that really believes in resolution but doesn’t get into specifics. For those of us that still read the Bible, it seems to me that’s what the Bible does plenty of, hint at resolution but maddeningly deny specifics. Well, maybe that’s been the best way all along, but it might not be the most fashionable.