David Michod's The Rover revels in a kind of chic impenetrability, taking place in a barren and humorless Australia set "10 years after the collapse." Guy Pearce stars as Eric, a flinty, soot-covered highwayman whose car is taken after an unexplained collision-cum-firefight with a couple of bandits led by an American-accented redneck, Henry (Scoot McNairy), who leaves his bumbling brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson), for dead. Eric inherits a small SUV from the altercation, but his quest for the original vehicle leads him to track down Rey, and the bedraggled meet-up that follows reveals more about Michod's ability to play with time, space, and mood than the specifics of the world he's created. The moments when the film rears up on its hind legs—usually conflagrations where Eric and Rey realize the quickest way to get what they want is by murdering someone—reveal Michod as a top-rate action director, but the film is less a shoot-'em-up than it is about the looming threat, and lifelong consequences, of violence for both victim and aggressor.
A question naturally emerges about what precisely happened to get humanity to this nihilistic point, and expecting the film to explain itself geopolitically can be maddening. All that the taciturn screenplay, co-written by Joel Edgerton (star of Michod's previous film, Animal Kingdom), coughs up are fragments and allusions to a much bigger story: ubiquitous flurries of spoken Chinese heard through loudspeakers; an ongoing military clampdown that brings to mind the Iraq War, but at a 10th of the scale; and an implied total devaluation of the Australian dollar. Everyone in Michod's dusty frontier wilderness is looking out for themselves, scared to say anything beyond the bare minimum. When Eric asks the madam of a boarding house if she's seen a car, she responds by asking him what his name is, and they volley "Have you seen my car?" and "What is your name?" back and forth until he pulls out a handgun and points it at her forehead, at which point she tells him she has seen the car in question, but it was "doing what cars usually do: it came in one direction and left in another." The worst that can be said about The Rover is that it has the feel of bad dystopian literature, as its text is so terse and blunted-off in explaining itself that it appears an exercise for a long while in opaque pseudo-symbolism.
Pearce was born for this stuff, but Pattinson—grunting slack-jawed to the point of needing subtitles, another layer of obfuscation Michod casts over the film—is sublime. The startling chasm between his characters in The Rover and Cosmopolis suggests a range that'll be properly acknowledged only when Pattinson is older, less appreciated as a heartthrob than for his skill as a seasoned vet. Rey is pathetic and whimpering at first glimpse, but later emerges closer to a hero than Eric, who kills so many people to find his car that the inciting McGuffin barely holds. Eric convinces Rey to lead him to Henry and his accomplices, but the reunion-confrontation between the two brothers gives the film its only real sense of sorrow, a climax verifying for the first real time how Michod's wasteland leaves its derelict inhabitants with nothing but terrible options. As a political allegory, The Rover is neither here nor there; that said, Rey's stare is almost thousand-yard enough to make the film's sense of tragedy feel downright Greek.