There is nothing particularly startling about director David Michôd’s sophomore effort, The Rover. As with his Sundance-winning debut, Animal Kingdom, the setting is hyper-masculine, and the story has a familiar ring: In a not-too-distant future, a man’s car is stolen and he stops at nothing to get it back (Think: a darker Dude Where’s My Car? in a post-apocalyptic Outback.) But what The Rover has is Guy Pearce. The rugged English-Aussie actor brings some depth to this otherwise standard bro-fare, as Michôd capitalizes on Pearce’s macho quality while demanding more of him than merely wielding a gun.
A decade “after the collapse,” the world is in a state of economic turmoil. The details of the global meltdown remain vague, though given that everyone in rural Australia speaks Chinese, that superpower most likely has something to do with the state of disarray. When Eric (Pearce) stops to drown his unspecified sorrows at a bar, his car is stolen by a group of men who abandon one of their gang, the “half-wit” Rey (Robert Pattinson), to die in a ditch following a shootout. Eric becomes obsessed about retrieving his run-down sedan and forces Rey to lead him to the car thieves.
With nearly no exposition and little contextualization, the movie relies on Pearce’s ability to communicate deep-seated melancholia and rage with only his weary face. This is no easy feat, but Pearce rises to the challenge by taking his cues from classic Westerns, revelling in his character’s ambiguities rather than an ability to quip while unloading a magazine – he’s more John Wayne than John McClane. (Antony Partos’s subtle score and a soundtrack featuring the ambient rhythms of the post-punk group Tortoise add to the eerie, threatening tone.)
But as good as Pearce’s roving may be, it isn’t enough to carry the film. The script, based on a story by Animal Kingdom star Joel Edgerton, often indulges in its opacity, with sparse dialogue. Michôd’s decision to punctuate the slow pacing with moments of extreme violence feels gimmicky; after the third or fourth blood- and brain-splattered wall, the gore begins to lose its impact.
Then there’s Pattison, best known for playing The Twilight Saga’s Edward Cullen. The Rover is his first film since that series ended two years ago, and he is clearly striving to prove he’s more than a pretty face. But try as he might to get down in the dirt with his co-star, Pattison’s performance never rings with the same feral quality Pearce has. Even with prosthetic rotting teeth, Pattinson is a heartthrob.
With Pearce’s talents left stranded at the roadside, when The Rover concludes with an unsatisfying twist, the destination doesn’t feel worth the journey.