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Midway through David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic The Rover (2014), Rey (Robert Pattinson), a possibly mentally disabled young man, relates a rambling, seemingly pointless story to Eric (Guy Pearce), his captor: as Rey yammers on and on, we watch as frustration and boredom wage war across Eric’s sun-bleached, weathered face, his quick-set lips constantly suppressing some sort of cranky comeback. After Rey finishes his story, Eric regards him with something approaching contempt and snaps, “Why’d you tell me that?” The young man shrugs and nonchalantly states: “It was interesting and I remembered it…not everything has to be about something.”

In a way, that’s as good a micro-philosophy for Michôd’s film as any: indeed, if one boiled The Rover down to its essential parts, one would get a narrative that consists entirely of a man pursuing another group of men in order to retrieve his stolen car. This is overly reductive, of course, since there’s a bit more going on here than that (The Rover is definitely about “something”) but Australian writer-director Michôd, who first hit the public eye with his brutal Animal Kingdom (2010), is a master of economy and the whole thing buzzes along with the extreme focus of the best single-minded revenge flicks. Think of this as a moodier Mad Max (1979) minus the tricked-out cars, intense action setpieces and over-the-top characters and you’re definitely in the right vicinity.

We begin in Australia, ten years after some sort of ill-defined “collapse” has led to some pretty miserable conditions: everything seems sun-baked and cracked, food and water are now luxury items and every single person packs as much heat as they can possibly carry. Into this heat-mirage of failure steps Eric, as beaten-down and weathered as the landscape around him. While stopping at what appears to be a nearly empty “water saloon,” Eric kicks back for a moment of peace and quiet, during which absolute disaster strikes: his one and only possession, his beat-up car, is stolen by a trio of thieves on the lam, Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo), Archie (David Field) and Henry (Scoot McNairy). The trio have just crashed their truck and jack Eric’s before he can stop them.

Jumping into their abandoned vehicle, Eric gives chase, on the thieves’ tail like flies on cow-shit. After a suitably thrilling cat-and-mouse chase, Eric gets out to confront them, at which point he’s cold-cocked and left to wake up in the dirt. As he continues his pursuit, Eric runs into Rey, Henry’s gut-shot brother. Seems that Rey was injured in whatever heist the group was involved in and the others just left him there, rather than dragging his soon-to-be carcass around. Since Rey claims to know where the group is headed, Eric takes him along, with the stipulation that he’ll slit his throat if Henry and the others aren’t where Rey says they’ll be. From that point on, Eric and Rey travel in uneasy companionship, their relationship never as simple as “captor and captive” or “traveling companions,” but never quite as cold-blooded as Eric’s relentless pursuit of his car. As the duo get closer and closer to their destination, Rey will have to make some awfully difficult decisions about family, loyalty and doing the right thing, even as Eric continues to shave his own humanity down to the bone, turning himself into a killer as remorseless and barren as the landscape around him.

For the most part, The Rover is well-made, heartfelt and consistently interesting, albeit  a tad confusing, from time to time. The script, based on an idea that Michôd developed with actor Joel Edgerton, is lean and mean, wasting as little time as possible on anything that doesn’t propel the story (and the characters) forward. Due to this economy, we don’t get much in the way of character development whatsoever (the only backstory we receive regarding the protagonist is one extremely confusing tidbit related after he’s been captured by the military and the film’s twist ending), which tends to give the various people we meet a rather “half-formed” nature.

In particular, the scenes involving Grandma (Gillian Jones) and the strange, old man at the film’s conclusion are enigmatic precisely because they’re sort of dumped on us with no explanation as to their significance. The bit involving the old man is particularly frustrating, since it seems to involve a fundamental emotional beat with Eric that never makes much sense: he seems to have an emotional reaction to someone he’s never met, for no perceptible reason, when he’s been largely emotionless before that. There’s also zero development with the trio of thieves, although McNairy and Pattinson do get a nicely emotional bit during the climax: Caleb and Archie are never anything more than generic types, however, giving their ultimate fates next to no real importance. While many films are filled with faceless villains, this seems an odd tact to take for a film that only features a small handful of actors: a little more depth would have opened up the film immensely.

From a production-standpoint, The Rover looks and sounds great: Natasha Braier’s cinematography perfectly captures the sun-bleached desolation of the uncompromising landscape and the occasional nods to an “artier” style (the slo-mo car flying by the window as Eric sits at the bar, drinking water and listening to an Asian pop song on the radio, for example) prevent the film from ever looking too “utilitarian.” The moody score, by Antony Partos, is particularly good: there’s one supremely cool driving sequence where the score approximates the sparse keyboard squelches of No-Wave legends Suicide and I, for one, could not stop grinning. I also got a kick out of the way Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” (you know, the “Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful,” song) scores a key setpiece: while the film is never less than dour, it’s pretty obvious that a subtle (very, very subtle) stream of dark humor runs through everything.

Performance-wise, I was quite taken by both Pearce and Pattinson: Pattinson, in particular, turns Rey into the kind of twitchy, fidgety weirdo that seems a million miles from his usual roles and I agreed with almost all of his acting choices, although his odd, slightly slurred accent is often more than a little hard to parse. Pearce, for his part, can pretty much do these kinds of roles in his sleep and his world-weary, defeated but determined take on Eric is sturdy and feels authentic. One of the most interesting aspects regarding the character of Eric is just how poorly he fits the role of “hero”: hell, even “anti-hero” seems a bit of a stretch, at times. For much of the film, Eric is violent, uncompromising and kills at the drop of a hat, often with as little provocation as possible. The final twist makes his character more sympathetic (barely) but the road leading there is paved with plenty of “questionable” activities, as it were. It’s to Pearce’s great credit that we’re always on Eric’s side, even if it’s not always easy (or possible) to agree with his actions.

Ultimately, I enjoyed, but didn’t love, The Rover. On the plus side, the film stakes out a claim as a reasonable neo-Western, ala The Way of the Gun (2000) and that will always receive my stamp of approval. Michôd’s film looks and sounds great, slotting in nicely with similar Australian fare, such as the aforementioned Mad Max, as well as “arty” post-apocalyptic films like Bellflower (2011). There are also plenty of good performances here, including an above-average turn by Robert Pattinson in a rather non-typical role. On the downside, the film feels a little long, especially for such a streamlined narrative, and I never felt emotionally engaged with it until the final revelation, which does end up packing a bit of a punch. That being said, fans of low-key post-apocalyptic tales should find plenty to approve of, even if the final result is decidedly less than a game-changer.