Deep into “The Rover,” dim-witted thief Rey (Robert Pattinson) delivers a rambling story about his childhood to icy loner Eric (Guy Pearce).
“Why are you telling me that?” Eric wonders.
“Not everything has to be about something,” Rey replies.
But movies do.
The violent, nihilistic and tedious revenge drama emerges as this year’s standard for meaningless. The tagline on the Australian film’s poster reads, “Fear the man with nothing left to lose,” but it should declare: “Not about something.”
In a near-future Outback “ten years after the collapse,” we meet shaggy drifter Eric as he throws back a drink in a roadside shack. Suddenly, three men burst onto the scene, rolling their truck while fleeing a bloody robbery. With their vehicle beached, they steal Eric’s car and head down the desolate highway.
This does not sit well with Eric, who begins a brutal odyssey to recover his car for reasons that don’t become clear until the final scene. Along the way he picks up the wounded Rey, the simpleton brother of the primary thug (Scoot McNairy of “Argo”), who got left for dead during the heist. Eric needs Rey to track down the car. Rey just likes having someone to talk with.
“The Rover” elicits comparisons to “Mad Max,” the stylish Aussie highway thriller that introduced the world to Mel Gibson. But that film (and especially its superior sequel “The Road Warrior”) understood the need for ground rules. Sure, the old society has collapsed. But what has replaced it?
Director David Michôd (following up his Oscar-nominated “Animal Kingdom”) never firmly decides. The first half of the movie illustrates the total lawlessness of the region — then military police suddenly show up to arrest people. There seems to be no economic structure beyond rudimentary trade and barter, yet people still covet paper money. (American dollars, specifically.) Michôd appears to confuse apocalyptic with backwoods.
The only thing that makes this dystopian downer watchable is Pearce (late of “Iron Man 3”), who oozes confidence despite the one-note role. When a lead character is this poorly written, it sure helps to have a first-class actor to lean on.
Team Pattinson doesn’t fare as well, even though he seems to be trying so hard. The shaved head helps divorce him a bit from the pretty-boy “Twilight” persona. Not sure why the filmmakers decide to make him an American Southerner, and the Brit certainly wrestles with the accent. The result is a twitchy character who looks like Eminem and talks like a cross between Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain” and Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade.”
Michôd (who wrote the screenplay based on an idea he conceived with actor Joel Edgerton) also saddles his cast with almost nothing interesting to say. Most conversations consist of a question, like “Who are you?” that is answered with another unrelated question — “What’s in there?”
Quirkiest of all is the soundtrack by Antony Partos. His atonal clangs and whirring are both interesting and distracting. When it works, it evokes the primal flourishes of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original “Planet of the Apes.” Often, it’s the only thing happening on-screen to denote the passage of time, so static is the film’s staging.
Rated R | Time 1:42