The Rover takes place in Australia in the middle of nowhere. Australia has a lot of that. The latest from writer-director David Michod (Animal Kingdom) is set "10 years after the collapse." It doesn't provide details about the collapse — we're not even sure whether the unspecified disaster hit the whole world or just Australia. Commerce still exists. We see a passing train, and gas and groceries are still sold by well-armed merchants in weathered shacks here and there. American money is preferred over Australian, for what that's worth. One thing is clear. In the middle of the southern outback, there is no law. Each person makes his or her own rules or follows the rules of others.
If reading about a lawless Australia after a collapse makes you think of the Mad Max movies, stop right there. There are no colorful punk road warriors in The Rover, no way-cool Thunderdomes, no knockout epic action scenes. In this terribly hot, sticky future, people fight exhaustion and nihilism. They search for somewhere relatively comfortable to sit and stare.
Ready to head for the theater yet?
There are bandits, naturally. While Eric (Guy Pearce) sits in a makeshift bar, we see the vehicle of three fleeing criminals – an Australian (David Field), a New Zealander (Tawanda Manyimo) and an American (Scoot McNairy) crashing outside. The frantic men steal Eric's sedan and race away.
Eric takes their vehicle (it wasn't nearly as messed up as they thought) and the most-definitely-not-Road-Warrior-style chase is on. At one of many stops, where a cordial lady (Gillian Jones) watches over a farmhouse and its inhabitants, Eric encounters Rey, played by Robert Pattinson in a drastic change from his look (check out those teeth!) and style in the Twilight movies. Rey appears stunned or stunted, but eager to socialize. Turns out he was a member of the aforementioned group of robbers, injured and left for dead. After he gets patched up by a doctor (Susan Prior), Rey takes off with Eric, so convinced that his brother (the American bandit) abandoned him that he is willing to lead Eric to the gang.
The Rover is well-acted and interesting. The score effectively creates suspense while amplifying the unrelenting bleakness of the story. The best part of the film is the give and take between Eric and Rey. Guy Pearce is effective, as always, but it's Robert Pattinson that makes their scenes rich. Eric is a grim survivor who says little and reveals next to nothing about himself. He is on a mission and will do whatever it takes to accomplish his goal, period. But there's more going on with Rey. He tries to be taciturn, but his need to interact is too strong. Eric and Rey don't become friends, but they build a certain sense of trust, and enough of a relationship to keep the movie rolling.
I won't reveal where the story goes or how it concludes, of course. Suffice to say the bleak atmosphere does not go away. I'm glad I saw The Rover, but I wonder how many others will opt to spend money on a hot summer day to suck on this brutal existential jawbreaker.