The Rover: To live and die Down Under

Writer/ director David Michod follows up his acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2010 debut feature Animal Kingdom with a gritty, dusty, post-apocalyptic fable that takes place in Mad Max’s old Australian stomping grounds.

The film takes place 10 years after collapse,” and now it’s every man “the collapse,” and now it’s every man for himself. If The Rover is intended as an allegory about human nature – and rest assured, that element is certainly present – then we’re all in trouble. It’s not so much survival of the fittest as survival of the meanest.

A grizzled Guy Pearce stars as Eric, a taciturn loner whose car is stolen by three thugs including Henry (Scoot McNairy), who are fleeing from a botched hold-up in which Henry’s brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) was left behind to die.

Not one to forget a slight, Eric is determined to retrieve his automobile, and drags the wounded Rey along with him. During their arduous, sometimes violent journey, an uneasy and unexpected alliance develops between the two men.

The Rover is a two-hander much of the time, with the Pearce at his most stoic and Pattinson, sporting an accent best described as “all-purpose white trash,” at his grubbiest. They’re not the most cheerful screen duo this summer, but both actors acquit themselves well enough under the circumstances, which are occasionally top-heavy with overt, sledgehammer symbolism.

The remote outback locations are ideally suited for a story such as this, filmed to the hilt by cinematographer Natasha Braier, and Antony Partos’ score is also an asset. Where Michod and Company have truly succeeded is in creating a persuasive, perceptible future that even looks hopeless, as if God himself had walked away in disgust over man’s folly. The look and feel of the film is remarkable.

It’s in the story, however, that Michod and fellow screenwriter Joel Edgerton (better known as an actor) falter somewhat. Characters portrayed as seemingly intelligent or at least crafty sometimes display a convenient lack of common sense or simple curiosity, which sometimes makes them look unnecessarily foolish. In addition, the ironic denouement isn’t nearly as profound or subversive, or even ironic, as the filmmakers evidently believe. There’s much to savor in The Rover, and a cult following is entirely likely – yet there’s also the nagging suspicion that, with a few minor script adjustments, true greatness was within its grasp.

The Rover is scheduled to open Friday.