No zombies stalk the ruined future of the new Australian film The Rover. There are no familiar landmarks, no gutted Times Square alive with vegetation. Ten years after “the collapse” we are in the parched and vacant outback, a glorious spot for a post-apocalypse. Usually makers of movies about the end of the world must resort to CGI. Here director David Michôd need only turn up.
We never learn much about the collapse – take your pick, the film suggests – but life has been stripped to rule-by-shotgun, among men with dead eyes and nail scissors haircuts. At the start we see one, Eric (Guy Pearce), having his car stolen. There are other cars that he could steal himself, but somehow this heap means enough to send him in grim pursuit across the widescreen nada. “What a thing to get worked up about in this day and age,” a character scolds him.
Later, he comes upon a half-dead figure named Rey, the manchild brother of one of the car thieves, whose life Eric saves so he can lead him to them. Rey is played by Robert Pattinson, former pin-up of the Twilight series, whose rot-brown teeth will be the latest trial for his fans.
Michôd’s previous film was the much-admired crime drama Animal Kingdom, and at first you feel the absence of that movie’s Shakespearean brawn. But The Rover works its way under the skin, our impending doom sallow and sweat-drenched. Against the endless horizon, it pulls us in close enough to feel its breath (uncomfortable when you can all but smell the cast). Michôd is expert at cranking tension, assured enough to follow it with a meditative pause, or even a wave of sugary pop music. This future is so messed up you can’t even depend on getting shot.
There’s also an implausibly good on-screen double act. Brutal as it is, The Rover evolves into a strange kind of buddy movie. Squint and you might be watching a nihilistic Rain Man. As actors, the mismatch is gripping. Not always at ease with an expression on his face, Pearce here is typically interior. But then there’s Pattinson, acting and acting some more, constantly, tirelessly, in every possible direction, eyes bugged, stuttering in a ripe hillbilly cadence. This is – in the language of his trade – not a performer in control of his instrument. But his eagerness to please is vitally human.
Amid the dog-eat-dog in the dun and dust, the influence of novelist Cormac McCarthy is rarely far away. But the sadder, subtler McCarthy-ish note Michôd puts at the centre of his film is our desperate need to keep hold of our rituals, here at the dead end. For all the savagery, what lingers is people going to bars even when all there is to drink is stale water, still reading books before bed. It’s those muscle memories that make The Rover heartbreaking. “What a thing to get worked up about.” Well, it’s better than nothing.