“The Rover” is a little too slow, a little too short on story and a little too wallowing in manufactured mystery to be entirely successful. But it has an arresting atmosphere and many good scenes, so that it’s a work of some integrity and is by no means a waste of time.
It takes place 10 years after a worldwide economic collapse — no more information is given than that — but we can see right away some of results. There are no new cars, and bathing and shaving are now strictly optional. Life is suddenly cheap, because there is no extra money for compassion. In one strangely moving moment, we see a room full of very sad yet eternally hopeful dogs, sitting in little cages. A veterinarian keeps them there, because if she lets them out, they’ll be eaten.
So it’s just a normal rotten day on the Australian outback. Guy Pearce, scruffy and sweaty, parks his car and walks into a place — and within minutes some crooks steal his car. He takes the beat-up truck they left behind and pursues them with a relentlessness that is confounding. He’s unarmed, and they have guns and are shooting at him, and yet he keeps coming. What is it with this guy?
That’s the first interesting question in “The Rover,” that of the protagonist’s character. Why does he care so much about that car (especially because he got a replacement vehicle out of the deal)? Is it that his sense of justice has been violated? But no, it doesn’t seem like he’d care about that sort of thing. Is he just someone who doesn’t like to get pushed around? Well, sure, but that’s a little vague. Eventually, the motives become more clear and make a sad, crazy sort of sense.
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And that is basically it. “The Rover” is the story of a guy who tries to get his car back, and every moment of screen time is in some way connected to that goal. The movie’s overall cast of gloom — no one here has cracked a smile in years — contributes to a leaden aura. But now and again, at fairly regular intervals, a scene or a moment will leap out, such as as when Pearce goes into a store to ask a question and the proprietor insists, at gun point, that he buy something.
Robert Pattinson plays the damaged brother of the man Pearce is following. Pattinson brings to the role a series of tics and mannerisms that even the young Jennifer Jason Leigh would have considered excessive. To enjoy Pattinson here, just don’t worry over whether it’s a good or bad performance. It’s striking. Striking is a form of good.
Best of all is the work of Gillian Jones, who shows up in one scene as Grandma. She offers to sell Pearce her grandchild. What makes the scene indelible isn’t that casual outrage, but that Grandma, as written by writer-director David Michod and played by Jones, is an impressive person — a shrewd reader of people, a good talker and someone imbued with a moral sense. Michod gives us the twisted ethics of a blighted era in a single character.