By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 17, 2014 at 7:57AM
The dirty, broken world at the center of David Michod's "The Rover," the Australian director's post-apocalyptic follow-up to his grisly 2010 crime drama "Animal Kingdom," is a familiar one. The dusty, empty landscape and cruel, humorless personalities populating its small ensemble immediately call to mind "Mad Max," while the prevalent despair suggests that pages have been borrowed from Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." Unfortunately, despite Michod's capability to emulate these dreary worlds -- and formidable performances from "Animal Kingdom" star Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in his first substantial role post-"Twilight" -- the movie barely amounts to more than a homage.
An opening title card sets the action "10 years after the collapse," but nothing takes "The Rover" into science fiction. Instead, Michod constructs a violent road trip in which bearded loner Eric (Pearce) is on a mission to track down the bandits who stole his car. He joins forces with one of the culprits' wounded brother Rey (Pattinson), whom they left for dead before the story's opening. An introductory segment in which the trio of villains, led by Rey's brother Henry (Scoot McNairy, in a handful of scenes) holds promise; it finds the feuding men engaged in a car accident alternately shot from inside the vehicle and flying by the window of the ramshackle building where Eric sits with his drink and the sound of the crash is drowned out by blaring music.
It's an oddly funny moment, followed by a suspenseful chase sequence as Eric jumps into the titular vehicle and briefly manages to chase them down. But few of the preceding scenes capture the same elements of surprise or suspense. Instead, as tight-lipped Eric continues on his quest with the bumbling Rey forced to accompany him, "The Rover" offers plenty of compelling ingredients dryly assembled along an unimaginative trajectory.
Nevertheless, Pearce's scowling appearance and relentless ability to force others to meet his demands—particularly in a sudden burst of violence when he seeks out a firearm—marks his strongest role since "Animal Kingdom," while Pattinson finally moves beyond wooden mannerisms to give his awkward character a pathetic, creepy demeanor. Leaving both the origin stories for both men largely up for interpretation, however, Michod (who co-wrote the story with regular collaborator Joel Edgerton) fails to make their plight engaging. Like its tattered setting, "The Rover" is scattered with intriguing ideas never successfully fleshed out: a woman at one outpost who keeps her dogs in cages to save them from scavengers and a motel shootout that manifests out of nowhere create the anticipation of peril lurking in every corner. They hint at the prospects of a well-honed thriller, and it's easy enough to get swept in the intensity of these moments.
However, the movie's harsh posturing never leads anywhere. Unlike John Hilcoat's 2005 Australian western "The Proposition," the outback doesn't have enough appeal on its own terms to justify the absence of story. Cinematographer Natasha Braier's yellow-brown imagery engenders a gravitas far deeper than any of the movie's slim developments. Instead, Michod relies on a series of basic vignettes. On more than one occasion, Eric and Rey engage in rambling fireside chats in between their adventures on the road. At one point, Michod's camera slowly pushes in Pattinson as he sits in their parked vehicle, singing falsetto to Keri Hilson's "Pretty Girl Rock" on the radio. It's a random tangent that doesn't deepen the proceedings or complicate the narrative in any particular way; like much of the "The Rover," it's a fragment incapable of latching onto a bigger picture.
Michod's commitment to unsympathetic storytelling and hardened characters allowed "Animal Kingdom" to maintain palpable dread at every moment. In "The Rover," the empty tension dissipates with time. Like the earlier movie, it culminates in an abrupt exchange of gunfire, but the meager payoff after such a blandly prolonged buildup can't compete.
As one of the characters sighs that "not everything has to be about something," but "The Rover" never manages to manages to fully justify that excuse.
"The Rover" premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the U.S. later this year.