Set in the desolate nowhere of the Australian countryside 10 years after a presumed global cataclysm, The Rover, which opens on Friday areawide, depicts a man named Eric (Guy Pearce) with nothing to gain or lose as he hunts down three crooks who stole his car. That's really all there is to it — that, and the man's evolving relationship with a mysterious "halfwit" he enlists as an accomplice (Robert Pattinson). The film is a masterwork of tone and texture, and though its pacing, graphic violence and macho metaphysics may distance some viewers, it's a remarkable achievement for sophomore director David Michod, who wrote and directed 2010's Animal Kingdom.
Two long opening takes — one of the land and one of Eric's haggard face — link the man and the country from the outset: There's a barrenness afoot, a bone-dry bone-weariness in both the physical and moral landscapes. While washing his face and drinking a beer at a shabby roadside watering hole, three men crash their truck as they barrel down the road, escaping a violent encounter. They take Eric's car and evade his pursuit when he recovers their truck. Eric is possessed by an all-consuming desire for his car. Getting it back becomes his life's singular pursuit.
At another shabby, roadside watering hole, Eric is approached by the abdominally wounded Ray (Pattinson) who recognizes the truck as his brother's. And so they set out, wandering through the obliterated terrain, almost in the fashion of the Little Prince: They encounter the brothel madame, the carnie, the doctor, the merchant, the hotelier, the officer of the law, the criminals. All of them dispense their own versions of wisdom and/or violence, and none of it seems to do any good.
Equal parts Western, sci-fi, and Ausssie-Noir, The Rover is dramatically accompanied by a haunting, throbbing score. Composer Antony Partos attacks the instruments more than he plays them, it would seem. But the music is only one piece of the atmospheric puzzle on display — the gritty world the film envisions is Mad Max's less-bizarro analog.
And a word of praise for Robert Pattinson! Unshackled from his Twilight commitments, the erstwhile Cedric Diggory flexes his acting muscles here as a mentally challenged American Southerner. He's got at least two very fine moments and is an excellent foil for Pearce's narrow, nihilistic, (equally persuasive) Eric.
Expect viscera and stubble and stray dogs. Expect gun deaths at very close and also very long range. Expect to be bothered by this film; expect to be energized by it.