Movie Review: Post-apocalyptic ‘Rover’ driven by mystery

Appointment with apocalyptic destiny: Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in “The Rover.”
Appointment with apocalyptic destiny: Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in “The Rover.”

‘The Rover’
★★★ 1/2

A post-apocalyptic revenge saga with more than a touch of Cormac McCarthy existential despair, “The Rover” maintains its seemingly unmotivated momentum by keeping us guessing about what’s driving its relentless protagonist.

And the man’s long, grim, mysterious pursuit feels worthwhile in the end because the film provides an answer, strange as it is, that affirms his humanity.

The follow-up to writer/director David Michod’s savage crime family drama “Animal Kingdom,” opens sometime in the near future (“10 years after the collapse” according to a title card), in the Australian Outback. Weary, morose Eric (Guy Pearce) is having a drink in a squalid bar when a gang of thieves, on the run after a shootout, crash their pickup truck outside and choose Eric’s beat-up Peugeot as a replacement. Big mistake, guys. Eric really loves that car, apparently, because he’s willing to drive through hell to get it back.

We don’t know why, any more than we know why civilization has dried up and blown away, resulting in a miserable, murderous, Wild West environment. We only know that Eric isn’t going to give up. As soon as they leave, he starts their pickup truck and pursues them unarmed. And when that first encounter doesn’t go well, he picks up Rey (Robert Pattinson) the wounded, half-witted brother of one of the thieves, puts a gun to his head and forces him to guide him on a long road trip to their hideout.

The first surprise in “The Rover” is that Eric isn’t the basically decent tough guy anti-hero you might be expecting. He has a very nasty secret in his past that haunts him and he’ll murder someone in cold blood if he thinks it’s necessary. Though Pearce manages to suggest there’s more to him deep down than silent, simmering rage — and accompanying Clint Eastwood tough-guy squint.

The second surprise is that the aforementioned long road trip is pretty much the main event of “The Rover,’ with occasional time-outs for random outbursts of violence.

Eric and Rey spend long days and nights together talking (well, Rey talks, Eric radiates silent contempt) and, very slowly, a relationship suggestive of “Of Mice and Men” starts to develop. Not because Eric feels sympathy for Rey’s intellectual handicap, but because he proves to have unexpected, highly useful resources.

Pattinson is quite effective as Rey, by the way, continuing his heroic quest to put his “Twilight” heartthrob days behind him, and not only because playing Rey involves epic uglification, rotten teeth included. Bad things happen to Rey and he does very bad things as well, though without really understanding what he’s done.

It’s to Michod’s credit that “The Rover” is remarkably intense, considering that not much happens for long stretches of time. It’s a matter of mood, mainly. Empty, sun-bleached landscapes, dirty, hungry, desperate people, howling dogs, vultures, crucified bodies along the roadside. It all adds up to a bleak vision of a future where living has little value and no real purpose — unless you assign yourself one.

And you’re willing to stake your life on it.

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