The Rover, Australian filmmaker David Michôd's follow-up to the brutish family drama Animal Kingdom, is a post-apocalyptic western from the outback, a stretch of land that already looks like the world's been blown away. All Michôd needs to convince us of the devastation is a title card pegging the events to "10 years after the collapse" and maybe few bucks' worth of extra dust. The desert soil clings to everything in the film: It chokes the air, powders the clothes, creeps into the folds of the actors' sweaty skin. Insects congregate, as though just before whispering "Roll camera" Michôd had released a box of flies. The characters he's written — a vengeful marksman (Guy Pearce) and a halfwit criminal (Robert Pattinson) — have been so forged by the bush that Pearce doesn't even flinch when a bug buzzes up his nose.
The halfwit's brother (Scoot McNairy) and his two accomplices (David Field and Tawanda Manyimo) have stolen the marksman's green Peugeot while on the run from a deadly shoot-out that's never explained. His old sedan was a dump; their jeep is nicer. But instead of appreciating that he got the better half of the deal, Pearce's marksman grabs the two things the thieves ditched — their wheels and a gut-shot Pattinson — and gives chase, a pursuit that drives him to the end of the film.
Why? Frankly, Michôd barely gives a damn. The Rover is more about mood and mechanics than meaning. Pearce's character is so laconic that his dialogue could have been programmed into a Speak & Spell that only grunts questions and threats. There's enough silence that Michôd could tell us anything we want to know: why the globe collapsed, how Rey (that's Pattinson's character) has a Tennessee yokel accent, where Eric (and that's Pearce's) got the bullet wounds that scar his chest. Yet Michôd would rather we piece it together ourselves using the hints he tosses in without explanation — three matching, mysterious SUVs hurtling down the highway, a cargo train that stretches for a mile, the still-active soldiers who threaten to ship Pearce to Sydney ("Why don't you just shoot me?" he groans), and everyone's disinterest in the opposite sex as though all of the hardscrabble humans left alive have decided to shrug, What's the point?
Twenty years ago this summer, Pearce became internationally famous as loudmouth drag performer Felicia Jollygoodfellow in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, another road trip movie through the outback. Seeing him in the same setting emphasizes how the years have matured him from a callow youth to a lean and crinkled cowboy, a proto-Clint Eastwood who convincingly carries the burden of a past he'd rather not confess.
Perhaps Pearce gives hope to his co-star Pattinson, who appears to have picked the role precisely because it will send his Twilight fans screaming out of the theater. As the bumbling, guileless Rey, Pattinson's allowed the makeup crew to rot his teeth, and when he smiles, his incisors get stuck on the corners of his mouth and hang there like limp socks. At first sight of Rey, lying in the dirt with a bullet in his belly, he appears to be in dumb shock. It takes several minutes to realize that he's actually dumb, which puts Pattinson in peril of, as Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder would say, going full retard.
Pattinson's been trying to prove he's more than a teen sensation, and his sweat is respectable. Instead of cashing in on heartthrob roles, he's playing Salvador Dalí, partnered with David Cronenberg for Cosmopolis, and will be letting Werner Herzog have his way with him in Queen of the Desert, out later this year. If his playing a mentally handicapped role here is a desperate stunt, he mostly lands it. His Rey is heavy-lidded and twitchy, forever grappling with his gun like a safety blanket, but then every so often a glint sparks in his eyes when he thinks — mistakenly — that he's outwitted Eric. He makes Rey a person, not a cliché, and arguably more of a complex character than Pearce's angry hardass. Yet Pearce gets his own moments of surprise: Whenever you think his Eric's going to play nice, he shoots, and then when you expect him to shoot, he cries.
Michôd sells us on the violent code of Australia's futuristic Wild West. The boys drive for days between shoot-outs, which speaks not just to the purity of Eric's vengeance — who would trek so far if they were only half-pissed? — but also makes us quietly wonder whether Eric might also just be nihilistic and bored, a man who'd rather get shot than linger on in this sun-bleached hell.
To kill time between battles, Rey tries to swap stories about their lives. Michôd has Pearce sternly shut down any talk that might distract from the silence. "Not everything has to be about something," sighs a frustrated Pattinson, trapped lumpenly in the passenger seat of this no-detours thriller. The Rover might not be about anything at all, but the dust it stirs up sticks to you after you leave the theater.