Even grunged-out Pearce is fine
  • A24
  • Guy Pearce in The Rover
I'm not exactly sure why I'm drawn to dystopian cinema, but I think it's because I tend to walk away from such films feeling grateful that the world today, fucked up as it may seem, isn't as bad what I've just seen depicted on screen.

During the course of two dystopian summer releases, a couple of men from the not-too-distant future will do whatever it takes to either retrieve or take control of an all-important vehicle. One director hails from Australia, the other from South Korea, but the narratives aren't specific to either country (and the Korean shoot actually took place in the Czech Republic).

In David Michôd’s The Rover (opening today!), Guy Pearce travels from one part of the Outback to the other in order to repossess his car. In Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, Chris Evans travels from one end of a train to the other in order to control the engine.

The Rover takes place 10 years after The Collapse, which recalls the scenario Cormac McCarthy depicted in The Road, since Animal Kingdom director Michôd provides precious little information as to what happened (Pearce also appeared in John Hillcoat's The Road adaptation). Pearce's Eric has no belongings other than his car, so when a trio of miscreants—led by Scoot McNairy's Henry—steal it, he'll go to any lengths to get it back. Since he finds a replacement vehicle in short order, it's clear that he isn't really after the rust-bucket, but what it means or contains.

Snowpiercer takes place sometime after the Earth has frozen over, a development that The Host director Bong, adapting the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, portrays in an expedient preamble (he co-wrote the script with Kelly Masterson of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead fame). Now the world's remaining survivors live aboard a train in which the haves exist separately from the have-nots. Evans, who plays Curtis, dwells in the back where he's been plotting a revolt with mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) and surrogate brother Edgar (Jamie Bell).

Director Bong Joon-ho and translator at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown last Monday
  • K.C. Fennessy
  • Director Bong Joon-ho (right) and his speed-writing translator at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown on June 16

Both directors lay on the grit and grime with abandon. In the sweat-soaked Rover, everybody appears to have cut their own hair with a pair of rusty scissors, but the look is more The Proposition (the Hillcoat western with Pearce and Hurt) than Mad Max (the George Miller post-apocalyptic road movie with Mel Gibson).

That includes a de-glamorized Robert Pattinson as Henry's simpleminded brother, Rey. Eric, who stumbles across the critically injured man at a truck stop, finds him a doctor, so that Rey can lead him to Henry. The tail-end passengers in Snowpiercer, on the other hand, have never seen the sun, so they look as green and sickly as the kind of bugs you might find under a rock. Once Curtis has recruited a locksmith (The Host's Song Kang-ho) and a pissed-off mom (Octavia Spencer), they kidnap Minister Mason (a Maggie Thatcher-like Tilda Swinton) and attempt to fight their way to the front.

If Snowpiercer is filled to the brim with plot, characters, and action, The Rover feels more like a sketch or an outline expanded into a full-length feature. It's so skeletal, in fact, that if MichĂ´d, who wrote the script with Animal Kingdom actor Joel Edgerton, had revealed the reason for Eric's quest in the first frame, the film would be over before it began. If the ending comes as a surprise, it also feels like a fuck-you to the audience. Some will find it clever; others will feel ripped off.

By contrast, Snowpiercer is faster and busier, but it's also funnier, especially once it enters Terry Gilliam-in-Brazil territory (I suspect that explains the Hurt character's name). The end also comes as a surprise, but it's more satisfying, possibly because it's more hopeful. In both films, a whole hell of a lot of people die in brutal fashion, but there's more at stake in Snowpiercer. That said, Pearce gives one of his finest performances in The Rover. His character, as written, has few redeeming qualities, but the actor reveals glimmers of humanity with the subtlest of strokes. That presents more of a challenge for Evans, aka Captain America, but then, Snowpiercer is more of an ensemble effort, and he's surrounded by some pretty terrific performers, like Allison Pill and Romanian heavy Vlad Ivanov.

Compared to the dystopian spectaculars of recent years, like the sound-alike Elysium and Oblivion, The Rover and Snowpiercer seem smaller, grittier, and more handcrafted, and I hope they don't get lost amidst the big-budget movies stalking multiplexes this summer. And I didn't even mention the baby-eating—something that would fit in either film—but I wouldn't want to spoil that surprise.

The Rover opens on Friday, June 20, at Pacific Place (among other theaters). Snowpiercer opens on Friday, June 27, at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.