The dystopia "The Rover" pairs a steely Guy Pearce with a loose cannon Robert Pattinson. Credit: A24
'The Rover' Director: David Michod Stars: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
Fictional dystopias are so prevalent that it’s possible everyone has their own, just waiting to be made. That doesn’t mean many of them are unique. The one dreamt up by David Michod, the filmmaker of “Animal Kingdom,” isn’t original. In fact, get this: It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller from Australia where one of the last remnants of technology is cars. But if it dares to invade “Mad Max” territory, it’s really more Cormac McCarthy — not just “The Road” but any of his novels about people whittled down to feral creatures, marching through a lawless, Boschian hellscape.
It’s 10 years after “the collapse” and Eric (Guy Pearce), a grizzled, taciturn loner, has his car stolen by a trio of desperate men. He wants it back; he won’t say why. (One of the only major cliches “The Rover” buys into is that his secret will be postponed till the finale, so it can disappoint you only at the last minute.) This mission might seem hopeless when vandals drive off into the dismaying openness of Outback. Slightly lazy screenwriting gives him a useful aid: one of the thieves’ halfwit brother, played by a severely dirtied up Robert Pattinson.
Where “Animal Kingdom” was sprawling, at times unwieldy, “The Rover” strives to be elemental, stripped down. The cinemascope frames ponder over vast and arid spaces that squash hope, as well as a sense of humor. (Michod does get some needed levity off of a running gag where people listen to whatever random music appears to be left in the world, from Chinese pop to Pattinson quietly crooning to Keri Hilson.)
Guy Pearce forces Robert Pattinson to help him find the men who stole his car in "The Rover." Credit: A24
Most explanations — from the why of society’s downfall to how there’s still electricity to play ear-shattering music — remain intentionally obscure. To the cold logician, this can be frustrating, though Michod means to disarm us by making everything fuzzy and ambiguous. Some people have become subhuman, but few seem preternaturally bad. One of the guys who steals Eric’s car looks like an AARP granddad whose golf game was interrupted by the apocalypse. (Another is played by Scoot McNairy, who’s always terrific at playing quasi-sympathetic derelicts.) Survival in this world, the film says, requires gradually shedding every layer of humanity. Even when they act tough towards eachother and wave guns, you still sense that they’re scared.
The film still gets away from Michod, in part because of his inclusion of Pattinson. He wants to be a great actor, and it seemed like his laser-focused, robotic turn in David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” might have been the key to unlocking what’s genuinely special about him. But that was a sculpted performance. Here he’s all over the place: an impenetrable alien one scene, a mumbling psycho the next. He can be strong or he can be amateurish, or both at once. Pattinson’s mesmerizing because we can’t get a lock on him. He’s a loose cannon playing a loose cannon. If he ever figures out what he’s doing, he might be less interesting to watch.
Pattinson and Pearce make for a truly, almost frustrating odd couple: the live wire and the steely badass. Pearce gives off an air of being made of granite, but he carefully slips in notes of vulnerability and decency. We don’t know his backstory — that is, until a monologue late in that is arguably over-explanation. But we don’t need to. His every move betrays bottomless guilt and suffering. This may seem like boilerplate pessimism, but it goes farther into the brink than most. Eric insists people shouldn’t forget their sins; they should live with them, every single second, as penance for committing them. Real suffering isn’t death but living with what one has done forever. Pearce’s performance oozes anguish at all times, and his heaviness helps to weigh down an ever-so-wobbly film that sometimes needs grounding.