The things left out of a well-made film can be just as crucial as what's put on screen. Aussie writer/director David Michod's crime thriller The Rover takes place amid the desolate landscape of the Australian outback in a near future where things have gone terribly wrong. People dwell in cobbled-together structures, and the few who seem to have work own a dilapidated diner or an opium den. The ethnic mix hints at today's new globalism, but it's clear that the result has been economic and environmental disaster.
The Rover carefully avoids the kind of backstory detail that might have pushed it into more familiar Mad Max territory. A dystopian nightmare with the minimalist soul of a classic Western, the film is brutal and beautiful and more than happy to leave narrative convention far behind.
Guy Pearce stars as a former soldier the credits call "Eric" (his name is never spoken in the film), whose car is stolen in the film's opening sequence by a gang of thieves fleeing a violent crime scene. A road trip across the outback follows as Eric hopes to retrieve his stolen car (for reasons that are also left unspoken), accompanied only by the slow-witted Rey (Robert Pattinson), a younger man who was left for dead by his older brother at that mostly off-camera shoot-out. Their alliance is fraught with peril, and it propels the action and provides a wellspring for all the atmosphere and tension at the heart of the film.
Pearce brings depth to the bitter and broken Eric, a largely anonymous everyman that recalls another vengeful "Man With No Name" created by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti Westerns. Known primarily for his work as lead vampire (and teen heartthrob) in The Twilight Saga, Pattinson attempts his first serious, multi-layered performance here and hits the mark as often as not. He will be taken far more seriously as an actor in the future. The pair's evolving onscreen relationship fills the void left by The Rover's simple storyline and keeps the film's relatively slow pace from becoming an issue.
Shot in the outback at the peak of summer on 35mm film by gifted cinematographer Natasha Braier, The Rover makes you feel the heat and stress of its extreme setting. A brooding soundtrack by composer Antony Partos incorporates songs by experimental musicians like Colin Stetson and the band Tortoise, and it's a perfect match for the stark beauty of the film's visuals. Director Michod burst onto the scene in 2012 with his debut feature, family crime drama Animal Kingdom, which received an all-time record 18 Australian Film Institute Award nominations, winning 10. But there's a cinematic purity to The Rover — a seemingly effortless ability to blend images and sound to express something words cannot — that signifies the arrival of a major talent. The ominous world of The Rover is plausible and recognizable. As a cautionary tale, the film suits our time all too well.