From the title card that reads "Ten Years After the Collapse" to the opening images of stark wastelands and Guy Pearce's weathered face, David Michôd's The Rover wants you to know that it is really, really dark. The film rolls around in a pile of its own self-important bleakness. It would like to be a cerebral, "slow cinema" take on apocalyptic Aussie films like The Road Warrior and Wake in Fright, but it isn't cerebral, just slow. It has more in common with the vacuous misery of last year's Out of the Furnace, and feels like the work of a talented and ambitious filmmaker with nothing to say.
The Australian native Michôd broke through in 2010 with the excellent crime drama Animal Kingdom, which featured Pearce in a supporting role. Animal Kingdom painted a deeply disturbing portrait of a ruthless criminal family turning against each other, and it succeeded because even the vilest characters held a queasy fascination. Their corrosive relationships mattered, and the suffering that surrounded them was tragic, but the characters in The Rover are quite dull, and suffering is just a pose.
Michôd still shows a talent for dreamily unsettling images, shocking cuts, efficient storytelling and incoherent soundtrack selections, and the first third of The Rover has a morose sort of electricity. Pearce is an unnamed man in the post-apocalyptic Outback, a craggy and dead-eyed loner who doesn't even bother to brush bugs off his face. When he stops for a drink, a car full of criminals crashes outside, and they quickly escape with Pearce's mid-size sedan. Awoken from his stupor, Pearce chases after them, eventually leaving a trail of bodies in the wake of his Terminator-like pursuit.
But when that chase starts to stall, so does the film, and after a tense opening act, The Rover becomes enamored with its own navel. Pearce's character captures the brother of one of the criminals, a wounded and slow-witted Southerner named Rey (Robert Pattinson). Rey was left for dead back at the crime scene, and he's just as eager to reunite with his brother as Pearce is to reclaim his stolen car, so he agrees to lead this gun-toting nihilist back to their lair.
It would be easy and obvious to dump the faults of The Rover on to Twilight punchline Pattinson, but The Rover does completely crash once he appears, and his performance is very bad, so maybe there's something to it. Pattinson was callow, wispy and overwhelmed in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, and he's callow, wispy and overwhelmed here. Few actors could survive something as drippy and perverse as the Twilight films, so that's hardly a fair measure, but it's another thing to flail under great directors.
Most unfortunate then that Michôd's screenplay requires Pattinson to perform a number of tasks for which he is hilariously unequipped — affect a Southern accent, play a "mentally challenged" man, carry long dialogue scenes, and be "intense," without adding up to an open-mic impression of Karl Childers from Sling Blade. Pattinson's oversized bag of actor's tics would never fit into the overhead compartment of a commercial airplane, but he smuggles every single shuffle, sneer and slouch on to the screen.
Once it becomes apparent that the story hinges on a burgeoning relationship between Pearce's mysterious man-pushed-too-far and Pattinson's guileless juvenile, the drama becomes as barren and hopeless as the crucifix-strewn Outback. Michôd gives very little context for the "collapse" or backstories for his desperate characters, but those enigmatic aspirations fail to dissuade him from indulging in sledgehammer-obvious social commentary. The film falls into a dreary rhythm, and as the characters reveal their inner lives, they come to feel less mythic and more underdeveloped.
While empty, frustrating and tiresome, Michôd's movie also brings to mind director Steve McQueen's second film Shame, a similarly bleak and stylized cinematic statement from a talented filmmaker with nothing on his mind but being important. McQueen followed up Shame with his for-the-ages Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, so even if The Rover is a total dog, there is hope for Michôd yet.