A man in post-apocalyptic Australia stops for a drink. By the worst imaginable luck, his car—his only possession—is stolen. He goes after it. Despite the action such a setup seems to invite, David Michôd’s follow-up to Animal Kingdom uses this archetypal revenge quest as an excuse more than an engine. This world is dying, not with a bang, but a whimper, and The Rover is an exploration of what that does to the people left behind.
Guy Pearce, always talented, can be spellbinding in the right role, and he’s found one here, carving a haunted history out of the rover’s central reticence. Robert Pattinson matches him as hostage/sidekick Reynolds, for whom every sentence requires several revs of the engine just to get his thoughts together and his courage up. To him goes perhaps the movie’s greatest moment, as he defends a bit of small talk to Pearce’s hostile and suspicious nomad. In a less confident movie, the moment wouldn’t be enough to become the fulcrum on which their relationship turns, but in this one, it burrows deep.
Their loaded truce sits largely alone in its humanity. In this slowly-dying world, everything else feels more like mythic interludes than conversations, and any answers we get aren’t as interesting as the questions. But that’s because The Rover’s most deeply-felt relationship is with its desert world, its emptiness gorgeously shot as both a warning and a metaphor. Michôd offers an all-too-believable landscape of apocalypse by decline—the unspoken rituals around water, the last lingering pockets of martial law and gasoline and groceries protected at gunpoint feel less like a sudden scorched-earth future than inevitabilities that have crept up on the world. That same slow crawl of desperation, inside and out, is what makes The Rover such a haunting journey.