The world of “The Rover” is a vast, pitiless expanse, a desolate patch of the Australian Outback 10 years after a Western economic collapse in which survivors roam like snarling, post-apocalyptic zombies, fighting over a broken society’s scraps with Darwinian aggression.
If the setting and mood of “The Rover” evokes “Mad Max,” director David Michod still makes those familiar elements his own in a film that, even at its most trite and, ultimately, sentimentally facile, possesses moments of astonishing assurance and austere beauty. Co-written by Joel Edgerton – who starred in Michod’s breakout 2010 crime thriller, “Animal Kingdom” – “The Rover” too often succumbs to the kind of pseudo-literary pretensions most often associated with Cormac McCarthy: arty, self-serious posturing meant to disguise its true intent, which is to indulge in pulp violence at its most graphic and fetishistic. The saving grace, in this case, comes by way of Michod’s own poetic sense of framing and composition, as well as a galvanizing lead performance from the great, scandalously underrated Australian actor Guy Pearce.
Pearce plays Eric, who becomes reluctantly involved with a gang of criminals who steal his car. While methodically pursuing them to get the vehicle back, he eventually crosses paths with Rey (Robert Pattinson), an intellectually challenged American – working in Australia as a miner – who becomes Eric’s dubious wing-man. The two make their way across the grim Australian landscape like a latter-day “Of Mice and Men,” with Eric imparting filial wisdom and his own skeptical worldview to Rey, who gratefully absorbs it like the abandoned but unfailingly loyal little brother that he is.
Like the classic Westerns from which “The Rover” takes its most basic contours, the men’s journey enables them to meet all manner of characters on the way to the final showdown. One of the most memorable is Eric’s encounter with a gentle-mannered older woman who turns out to be as tough and morally wizened as the surliest inhabitants of a wasteland that has descended into lawlessness, anarchy and casual depravity. Working with cinematographer Natasha Braier, Michod coats everything within sight in various shades of dust, the bleak visuals echoed in Antony Partos’ harsh, dissonant electronic score.
Into this joyless world, Michod manages to imprint his own signature, from the way he and Braier move the camera to establish figures within their larger environment, to the startling image of a car turning somersaults outside a diner window while a man obliviously huddles at the counter in the scene’s foreground. (There’s also an amusingly meta scene of R-Patz singing “Pretty Girl Rock,” in which he makes a clever and convincing case for accepting him outside his “Twilight”-created pop stardom.)
As impressive as these flourishes are, what makes “The Rover” more watchable than the average self-conscious genre exercise is Pearce, who exudes such weary authority and palpable vulnerability that he’s sympathetic even in the film’s most brutalizing moments. “The Rover” finally doesn’t add up to much, but if it brings Pearce to the top of more casting lists in the future, it’s well worth the trip.