Outback to Basics: The Rover

06/04/2014 4:00 AM |

The Rover
Directed by David Michôd

Set 10 years after “the collapse” (of the world economy, that is), this post-apocalyptic drama is insistently bleak and brutally linear—a nasty piece of work, even by the genre’s already grim standards. Brand detritus litters the film’s heat-punished stretch of the Outback, as desolate as the surface of the moon, but the brand names have been pried off: the places of business have no signs, plastic water bottles have no logos, cars have no emblems. In the film’s first scene, the weathered Eric (Guy Pearce) staggers into a saloon for a glass of water, only to see a band of criminals making off with his dirt-caked sedan. This being his last worldly possession, he’s inclined to track the car down, and him being a totally unforgiving individual, he’s prepared to make the thieves pay once he does.

The flatness and sparseness of the landscape, combined with the fluid style of writer-director Michôd, make for some marvelously clean-lined action: a car chase down a straight-shot dirt road, an armed confrontation with a soldier outside a motel. The film settles more deeply into a contemplative vein, though, as Eric crosses paths with Rey (Robert Pattinson), the bumbling but kindly younger brother of one of the car thieves, left behind by them in the wake of a robbery-gone-wrong. Eric and Rey take to the road together, the former tolerating the latter only because he knows where his older brother might be heading. Meanwhile, The Rover occasionally almost suggests a sonic environment rather than a narrative proper—the soundtrack assembles ominous drones, minimalist composer William Basinski, and throwaway pop hits alongside sparse dialogue.

It’s not hard to guess whether the “halfwit” Rey has something to teach the far-gone loner Eric about the value of fellow feeling, but Pattinson is enough of a revelation to hold you through these more straight-ahead passages. Speaking with a Southern drawl and struggling through something of a stammer, the actor turns in a heavily (but not distractingly) mannered performance, portraying Rey as shell-shocked, chronically nervous about where his allegiances should lie.

Making his sophomore feature after 2010’s well-received crime-family drama Animal Kingdom, Aussie Michôd walks the line between his countryman John Hillcoat’s wider-scope after-nature parable The Road and Ted Kotcheff’s recently rereleased 1971 film Wake in Fright, a rollicking reckoning with the base instincts of man, set in a godforsaken Outback mining town. But though The Rover sticks rather closely to the standard post-apocalyptic mold, it’s distinctively textured enough to remain freshly alarming throughout—as stark every-man-for-himself testament, as nightmare environment, and as near-future conjecture.

Opens June 13 at the Sunshine and the AMC Lincoln Square