A fashionably grim Ozploitation thriller, The Rover finds writer-director David Michôd casting the Australian Outback as a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s not a radical makeover: The film’s lawless landscape, populated exclusively by wearied survivors and hardened criminals, isn’t so different from the one depicted in most movies set in the bush, including the decidedly non-futuristic Wake In Fright. Nor is this the first time someone has thought to make the vast, sweltering expanses of the Aussie countryside a dystopian backdrop. In many respects, The Rover is just a bleaker, less colorful descendant of the Mad Max films, replacing the rollicking action of that franchise with a mood of nihilistic despair.
The focus on cars, however, remains. Set in the aftermath of some global upheaval (“Ten years after the fall,” is about all the exposition provided), the film opens with a trio of outlaws jacking the prized automobile of a mysterious loner (Guy Pearce, gaunt and bearded). One of the thieves has a mentally challenged brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson), who the gang left for dead after a robbery gone wrong. Determined to get his lone possession back, Pearce’s titular antihero—credited as “Eric” on IMDB, though the character resists providing his name throughout—takes Rey hostage, forcing him to play navigator during the subsequent voyage across a desolate, dangerous Australia. The two don’t exactly bond through the experience, but they do become uneasy allies, united by their encounters with greedy locals and gun-toting mercenaries.
Michôd, who made the overrated crime drama Animal Kingdom, revels in the brutish indifference of his Western-flavored hellhole future. In a world gone to the dogs, evil need not bother hiding behind the beaming smile of kindly old Jacki Weaver; it runs rampant instead, empowering Michôd to lean more heavily on the macho philosophizing of his characters. But if his sophomore feature is as derivative as his freshman one, at least the filmmaker has borrowed from better sources. He swipes freely from countryman John Hillcoat, mixing elements of The Proposition (which also starred Pearce) and The Road. And while it’s never quite exciting, even when guns are blazing and rubber is burning on asphalt, the film has Aussie personality to spare. A whole ensemble of interesting faces fill out the ensemble, bit players giving their all in microscopic roles. (Creepiest in show: Gillian Jones as a grandmother pimping out her teenage grandson.)
So why is Pearce’s road warrior so intent on getting back his whip? The film eventually provides an answer, though it’s much less satisfying than the vague sense of nostalgic comfort cars seem to provide—an impression strengthened by a scene of Pattinson sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked jeep, softly singing along to “Pretty Girl Rock.” At heart, The Rover is something of a buddy road movie, albeit one almost completely devoid of humor. There’s an Of Mice And Men quality to the central relationship, which becomes more subtly affecting, even as Michôd staunchly refuses to sentimentalize it. Credit the leads. Pearce, who looks more grizzled than ever, undercuts his stoic-badass routine with slivers of Leonard Shelby melancholy. And a grimed-up Pattinson gives the type of entertainingly twitchy performance that may yet rescue him from the straitjacket of his tween appeal. But then, the real star of this Down Under downer is probably the gorgeously unforgiving setting. Every cliché shines a little brighter in the glow of a setting Outback sun.