Guy Pearce gives a riveting performance in “The Rover,” full of quiet rage, ruthlessness and single-minded determination. He’s on a mission to get back his stolen car, and it looks like nothing can stop him.
The setting is the Australian Outback, 10 years after the economic collapse of the Western world, and while the outlaws who roam the land aren’t as leathered up as they were in “Mad Max,” the killing comes easy.
Director David Michôd, who won widespread acclaim for 2010’s “Animal Kingdom,” doesn’t provide much of a backstory, but it’s clear that Eric (Pearce) is a loner on a mission. He was apparently a soldier at one point, and eventually became a farmer and family man, but the economic collapse took all of that away from him
When Eric stops at a diner on a desolate stretch of highway, a truck carrying three criminals crashes nearby. They’re fleeing a robbery, and they need a vehicle fast, so they take Eric’s car. When Eric discovers the theft, he manages to get the criminals’ truck running again and heads off in pursuit.
The resulting chase is anything but routine.
Along the way, Eric comes across a wounded American, Rey (an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson). It turns out that Rey is the slow-witted brother of Henry (Scoot McNairy), one of the gang members who took Eric’s car, and Rey has been left for dead after being shot during the robbery. Eric figures that Rey can help him track down the car thieves and takes him to a seedy doctor for dubious medical treatment.
The rest of the movie plays out as Eric and Rey develop an uneasy rapport on the way to tracking down the gang. On the road, they meet murderous carnival workers, shell-shocked shopkeepers and Asian refugees, and nearly everyone is ready to kill to get what they want. The big problem for all of these folks is that Eric is willing to kill, too. And Eric is very good at it.
The plot, however, isn’t nearly as important as the acting chops on display in “The Rover.” For the first time in his career, Pattinson gives a performance that goes well beyond the dreamboat image he has cultivated in the “Twilight” saga. His Rey is full of vulnerability and naivete — a sharp contrast to the steely ferocity of Pearce’s Eric, who greets everyone on the road with a cut-to-the-chase statement: “I’m looking for my car.”
We eventually discover why Eric wants his car so badly, and it’s clear that the car represents much more than a means of transportation. It’s almost as if Eric sees the car as his connection to another life — an emotional anchor that must be recovered amid the desolate present.
Michôd, who wrote the screenplay with Joel Edgerton, has said that he sees Eric as carrying around a great resentment that is bubbling up in a murderous way because he remembers “a time when things were different.” The part was written with Pearce in mind — and it’s a match made in Hades.