Review by Jane Freebury
As a vision of a lawless future, David Michôd’s eagerly anticipated new film is about as good as it gets. Set 10 years after ‘the collapse’, a somewhat mysterious but totally imaginable breakdown of economic systems, it takes place in the semi-arid landscapes of the Australian desert. A symbol, if ever there was one, for a harsh realities and meagre existences.
Fuel does not appear to have become much of a problem yet, as it was in that defining outback dystopia of Mad Max. There are other resources in high demand however. One of several memorable images is that of an endless freight train. The word Australia is proudly emblazoned on the engine and some muscled Aussie blokes ride gunshot to protect it, but all the cargo is clearly on its way to China. Another interesting sign is the penetration of Asian cultures deep in the Aussie heartland. Opium dens and bars of ill-repute have taken root in the old motels and farmsteads and shops formerly occupied by people who have long fled or are long dead.
This is not as nightmarish a vision as the breakdown of civilisation as The Road either, but is closer to home, as it were. Much of the action takes place in clear view under a bright sun. The violence is brutal and perfunctory, rather than hideously dragged out, which is more realistic too. And Guy Pearce as the elemental avenger at large is just the right mix of scruffy everyman and killing machine with fierce, dead eyes. Nut did anyone else find it oddly amusing to see a this roving avenger dressed in practical bushman’s khaki shorts rather than covering his legs with ubiquitous jeans. Taking realism too far?
The storyline is, unfortunately, as minimalist as the production design. While soundscape and cinematography have been lavished with attention and are quite wonderful, the basics of plot and character in the screenplay by Michôd and his collaborator Joel Edgerton have missed out on same attention. Some clever exchanges show there is a more interesting film in there somewhere. Such as the sparring between Eric and Sgt Rickofferson (Anthony Hayes in good form) during a routine prison interview. More of same would have served the film very well. And the unnerving frisson of danger that leaps off the screen during Eric’s confrontation with Grandma (Gillian Jones) as they talk at cross-purposes is just a one-off.
As it happens, the personality bypass of Pearce’s character means that Robert Pattinson’s drifter Rey, an American Southerner with a tricky accent, is the most interesting person on screen. Hey, even bad teeth can’t destroy the brooding looks, his fans will be pleased to see, though I don’t think he manages to nail the blend of guileless innocence and silky menace that was intended. Of his character or the film.
In a capsule: A dystopian vision of the Outback, a magnet for drifters from all over the world. Great on disturbing atmosphere but short on human dynamics.