Robert Pattinson is an idiot, or at least he plays one in The Rover. A dopey criminal with a mealy mouth and a gunshot wound, he’s the Lennie to Guy Pearce’s George as the reluctant duo hit the road in a vaguely post-apocalyptic Australia.
Here’s what we know: ten years after an ill-defined economic and social collapse, the Seventh Continent has attracted all manner of men seeking to capitalize on its mineral-rich resources. Bearded loner Eric (Pearce) doesn’t seem so ambitious; all he has is his car, and all he wants is his car back once a robbery goes south, prompting ringleader Henry (Scoot McNairy) and his panicked partners to steal Eric’s silver sedan and leave Henry’s little brother, Rey (Pattinson), behind.
And so Eric and Rey give chase, with the former displaying little sympathy for the latter’s slowness or general well-being. To be more precise, our protagonist is a single-minded sociopath whose reasons for so prizing his vehicle are left unanswered for much of the film’s running time. A series of vignettes ensue, often comprised of the same few questions (“Where is my car?” “Have you seen my car?” etc.) and riddles in return, alleviated by the occasional evacuation of brain matter from its natural home.
If Animal Kingdom was director David Michôd’s character-driven love letter to classic crime family films, then his much-anticipated follow-up evokes any number of precedents: the near-future desolation of The Road and The Road Warrior, the Old West grit of The Proposition and 3:10 to Yuma (either one), and even the odd-couple dynamic of John Steinbeck’s literary classic, “Of Mice & Men.”
When held by those standards, this film doesn’t deliver the same kind of genre-rattling excitement as most similar efforts, but on its own, from scene to scene, moment to moment, it’s an enthralling watch, guided by implicit purpose and crafted with consistent personality. Cinematographer Natasha Braier does a fine job ensuring that the Outback seems like a suitably trying wasteland, and her stark imagery is well-matched by a score that sounds like tetanus, courtesy of composer Antony Partos.
The story’s cheeky ending echoes the sensibility of Joel and Nash Edgerton, whose Blue-Tongue Films co-produced, while also lending a critical retroactive sadness to Pearce’s steely determination. That flinty persona clashes well with Pattinson’s desperately thuggish demeanor, the hardened man tolerating the hapless boy. Even if it’s not the latter’s strongest performance, it displays a willingness to flex a few new dramatic muscles.
Michôd himself seems to admit as much when Rey carries on with a warbly solo sing-along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock,” the reprise for which reminds his critics, “Don’t hate me ‘cuz I’m beautiful.” It’s the most distinctly off-kilter deviation from The Rover’s otherwise grim yet compelling journey, and one wishes the film had a few more moments like it.
The Upside: A fairly taut character study in the guise of a wasteland Western.
The Downside: Often derivative; occasionally dull.
On the Side: Australia is actually a real place.
Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to “Pretty Girl Rock” as “Party Girl Rock.” We regret the error, but would listen to both.