Writer-director David Michôd’s spare tale of hard-scrabble life, brutal and sudden death, and alienation in a collapsed Australia is as frustrating as it is fascinating. On one hand it’s an ugly, evocative, and deliberately paced road movie that plays out like the Mad Max movies filtered through the works of Cormac McCarthy; on the other it’s so vague and emotionally remote as to be nearly impenetrable.
A grizzled and brutish Guy Pearce stars as Eric, a middle-aged loner eking out what passes for an existence roughly a decade after an economic breakdown of apparently apocalyptic proportions has turned Australia into the modern equivalent of the wild west. This taciturn anti-hero (emphasis on “anti-“) makes a fateful stop along the road that results in the theft of his sole possession — an unassuming green sedan — by a gang of thugs on the run after an unspecified gunfight. In the chaos, their leader, Henry (Scoot McNairy), left his wounded brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson), behind.
Eric pursues the thieves with a single-minded determination verging on obsession, using the “half-wit” Rey as his means to that end. The murderous extent that Eric is prepared to exercise in order to retake his car is shocking; and even though he is clearly and unashamedly using the youth, he and Rey find some common ground and forge a tenuous bond.
Much of the credit for carrying this spare and dreary narrative goes to Pearce, who does an impressive job of doling out his character’s demons and desires in a movie almost entirely devoid of exposition, making sure that we only see Eric from indirect, enigmatic angles all the way up to the curious revelation of the final scene.
As talented as Pearce is, however, it’s Pattinson who steals the spotlight with his performance as the mentally and emotionally damaged Rey with a performance that goes a long way towards shredding his post-Twilight cardboard pretty-boy status. His heart-throb looks hidden behind a layer of grime, rotten teeth, nervous ticks, and a thick backwoods accent, he seems hellbent on burying Edward Cullen forever. Still, both characters are ciphers, and it’s only on rare occasions that they resonate with the people who fall into orbit around them.
Michôd layers on the atmosphere and shoots a dusty, grungy version of Oz that’s so ugly it is almost beautiful; unfortunately, there’s a lack of articulation in his story that there’s little in the way of a theme to make The Rover compelling. That’s frustrating, because a movie this nihilistic and driven should be about something.