The promise of Australian director David Michod’s 2010 debut feature, “Animal Kingdom,” is amply realized in “The Rover,” a post-apocalyptic road movie of sorts set a decade after some unspecified cataclysm has turned the world — or at least one far-off corner of it — into a mercenary no-man’s-land. Tipping its hat to George Miller’s “Mad Max” trilogy while striking a more somber, introspective tone, Michod’s sophomore feature isn’t exactly something we’ve never seen before, but it has a desolate beauty all its own, and a career-redefining performance by Robert Pattinson that reveals untold depths of sensitivity and feeling in the erstwhile “Twilight” star. A commercial challenge due to its mix of explicit violence, measured pacing and narrative abstractions, the pic should earn the warm embrace of discerning genre fans and further establish Michod as one of the most gifted young directors around. Upstart U.S. indie A24 rolls “The Rover” out June 13, simultaneous to Oz release via Roadshow.
Exactly what has gone wrong in the world (referenced only as “the collapse”) is never explicitly stated here; nor are the motivations of the film’s taciturn central character, Eric (Guy Pearce), up until a deftly handled and unexpectedly moving final scene. All we know for most of “The Rover” is that Eric really, really wants to regain ownership of his car, which is stolen in an early scene by a trio of agitated, desperate-looking men fleeing from the scene of a crime. After flipping their truck outside a forlorn watering hole, the men — a white Australian (David Field), a black New Zealander (Tawanda Manyimo) and an American (Scoot McNairy) — continue on in Eric’s dust-covered sedan. Having rehabilitated the damaged truck, Eric promptly gives chase. We are somewhere in the south Australian outback, and the road stretches toward an infinite horizon.
Eric’s journey takes him ever deeper into the parched, desolate landscape, shot by Michod and the Argentinian-born d.p. Natasha Braier (“The Milk of Sorrow”) in arresting widescreen compositions that constantly frame the actors small against the vast, enveloping nothingness. Makeshift trading posts dot the way — only American dollars are accepted, in one indication that the “collapse” was at least partly an economic one — while periodic glimpses of military convoys imply that society may be under martial law.
Also en route: arguably the creepiest farmhouse since “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” where a disturbingly courtly grandma (the excellent Gillian Jones) keeps watch over a traveling circus that long ago stopped traveling. It’s there that Eric crosses paths with Rey (Pattinson), the badly wounded fourth member of the fugitive gang (and the younger brother of the lone American), whom he takes as a kind of hostage before continuing on his way.
Slow of wit and tongue, Rey resists his captor’s prying questions about the others’ whereabouts and motives — as well as his repeated suggestion that Rey had been left by his own brother to die on the side of the road (a point of connection with “Animal Kingdom” and its insidious, intra-familial betrayals). But after being patched up by a lady doctor (Susan Prior), he agrees to lead Eric to their hideout and his hoped-for reunion with his beloved automobile.
The road traveled from there shares something with the existential highways of movies like “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Vanishing Point,” in which the characters keep forever moving forward because stasis looms as a kind of symbolic death. Only gradually do both men divulge a few spare details of their respective pasts: Eric admits to a crime in his past for which he was never brought to justice, further eroding his already fragile faith in humanity; Rey says that he and his brother came to Australia looking for mining work — evidently one of the only growth industries left in this new world order. To say that these unwitting traveling companions gradually grow close would be a bit of an exaggeration, but a hesitant sort of trust takes hold, and when the two find their backs against the wall, they join forces against a common threat.
Pearce is fiercely impressive here as a man who gave up on the human race even before the latest round of calamities, and if there are occasional glimpses of the kinder, gentler man he might once have been, we are more frequently privy to his savage survival instincts. But it’s Pattinson who turns out to be the film’s greatest surprise, sporting a convincing Southern accent and bringing an understated dignity to a role that might easily have been milked for cheap sentimental effects. With his slurry drawl and wide-eyed, lap-dog stare, Rey initially suggests a latter-day Lennie Small, but he isn’t so much developmentally disabled as socially regressed — an overprotected mama’s boy suddenly cast to the wolves — and Pattinson never forces or overdoes anything, building up an empathy for the character that’s entirely earned. He becomes an oasis of humanity in this stark, forsaken land.
Those looking for big action and bombast will inevitably be disappointed, but Michod (who also wrote the script, based on a story he conceived with actor-writer-director Joel Edgerton) strikes an eerie, unsettling tension early on and rarely lets go — a mood immeasurably enhanced by “Animal Kingdom” composer Antony Partos’ original score, which compensates for the film’s spare dialogue with an inspired mix of industrial shrieks, tribal drumbeats and wails, and fleeting snatches of melody. The rich soundscape is further enhanced by sound designer Sam Petty’s crisply recorded and mixed effects, which bring every humming electric light, chirping cricket and whirring engine to the fore.