The Rover isn’t a very good movie. If you do more than admire the composition, scenery, handsome man faces provided by leads Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, and listen to the nicely curated soundtrack, it turns out that this is, in fact, a pretty bad movie. Adult males shooting and killing each other, and sometimes women/children, without regard. Like the astronaut ice cream equivalent of actual Cormac McCarthy, The Rover is a movie where women do not figure—and that’s it. McCarthy’s critique of masculinity and his larger ideas about time, evil, and chance are nowhere to be found. There’s only a world of men, killing.
The world, specifically, is Australia, 10 years after some apocalyptic societal dissolution referred to pithily as “the collapse.” The men are Guy Pearce, playing a nameless older man who wants his car back; and Robert Pattinson, playing Rey, an intellectually disabled younger man who has been shot and abandoned by his brother. His brother is the one who has taken nameless older man’s car. (The IMDB credits refer to Pearce’s character as Eric, but since it’s never used in the film, I won’t use it here. We won’t have IMDb after the collapse.) Nameless older man (NOM) hits the road with Rey to find his automobile.
None of this matters. That’s not only my opinion, but the film’s, too. The story is so threadbare, the characters reduced to such basic desires—NOM NEED CAR. REY NEED STOP BLEEDING. REY NEED NOM HELP.—that the dudely nihilism become almost laughable. "Fear the man," the trailer commands in all caps.
With such a dearth of ideas on screen and in the script, the movie’s music becomes strangely important. Typically, you think of a movie’s soundtrack or score to be in service of the images. But in The Rover, that relationship begins to shift until it begins to feel like these images are in service of the music, and maybe the music is the only thing worth thinking about. Specifically, Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.”
There are a number of reasons this song jumps out of the screen, not all of them having to do with the couplet “Boys wanna marry, looking at my deri’/Aye, you can stare but if you touch it imma bury.”
The song is remarkable within the film for its dissimilarity to the rest of the music heard: experimental electronic tape-loop minimalist William Basinski; experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson (who has played with Arcade Fire); experimental bassist Robert Black; experimental Chicago longform rock band Tortoise. And then Keri Hilson. (Briefly, there’s other pop music heard in the film, but it’s not English-language music, and it’s painted as other by being heard in settings occupied by Asian-Australian characters.)
When Keri Hilson’s voice appeared, the audience of the critics’ screening I attended laughed. Guffawed, actually. In the scene, Rey sits inside a car at night, the passenger’s side door open. Light spills out of the vehicle. The camera tracks in. Rey begins to sing along, finishing the ends of phrases, where the rhymes fall. The places you’d sing along if you didn’t know the song very well. He really gets into it when Hilson reaches the chorus: “All eyes on me when I walk in.” A guy alone singing along to the radio in his car at night.
The question is: Is this a joke? The easy answer is yes, of course. David Michôd, the film’s director, has up until now filled his film with markers of high musical culture, difficult music, and now he has a character—the disabled character—sing along to a pop song that cracked the Top 25 of the Billboard Hot 100. And in a single take, no less. There is nothing in the scene but Hilson’s song, Pattinson’s face and wavering voice, and a car. It’s the stunt casting of Pattinson the heartthrob combined with the stunt performance of Pattinson doing Sling Blade combined with the stunt soundtracking of a pop song in a film filled to bursting with anti-pop. It’s a joke.
Only, what if it weren’t? What if The Rover were a film that, crucially, didn’t set this up as punchline, and instead treated it as seriously as, say, NOM’s pivotal monologue about killing a loved one?
Imagine that the world has ended. What good would pop music be? Couldn’t it be everything, a three-minute bow-and-ribbon-wrapped package of joy in a world scrubbed free of it? If you look around and the world looks exactly like a William Basinski song, does that man’s music still serve a purpose? Couldn’t Keri Hilson (and Katy Perry and Rihanna and Beyoncé and Taylor Swift) matter most?
Because The Rover gives you so little to chew on, this becomes most important subject (even though the film doesn’t turn out to be a poptimist campfire tale). Music has long been the privileged art form. It’s intangible, it’s inextricable from memory in that a piece of music requires the listener to fashion facsimiles of its passages in order to appreciate its structure. Basinski, because he deals in loops, does away with the need for memory. Everything happens in the eternal present of a repetitive loop. You don’t have to look back to know what came before because it’s already there in your ears again. In the world after the end of the world, Keri Hilson would activate your memory of the past. It would be the most necessary thing in existence.
But at the screening of The Rover I attended, everyone laughed. (Michôd’s final shot reinforces the fact that this is a movie composed of punchlines.) The “Pretty Girl Rock” scene is a gag—spectacle at least; at best, something to make you condescendingly sympathize with the disabled character on the eve of something awful. Aw, he’s got bad taste! And he sings so poorly! These things would make me feel extra bad if something were to happen to him! Aw!
In a better future, it wouldn’t be this way. In a less pedestrian movie, this scene would be the beating heart. It would be everything.
It might look something like this:
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He tweets here.