Near the beginning of “The Rover” there is what can only be described as an Anti-Michael Bay car chase. Slow speed with lots of brake action, it plays more like the OJ Bronco chase than anything we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. Like the rest of the movie it’s not pedal-to-the-metal, but it packs a primal punch.
The story of Eric (Guy Pearce), the proverbial man with nothing left to lose, plays like a recently discovered Michelangelo Antonioni 1970’s nihilistic thriller. Or maybe like the love child of “Mad Max” and “Dude, Where’s My Car.”
Eric makes Clint’s Man With No Name seem like an open book. He’s a dangerous man, a crack shot set into motion when three thieves steal his car. Determined to get it back he is relentless in his efforts as he combs the Australian outback. Along the way he picks up Rey (Robert Pattinson) the only person who knows the whereabouts of the thieves’ hideout and presumably the stolen car.
“The Rover” seems to take its narrative thrust from a single line of dialogue. “Not everything has to be about something.” It’s an action movie punctuated by occasional bursts of violence, but where most of the action is internal. Holy Antonioni! The real turmoil here is inside the heads of the leads, Pearce and Pattinson.
The edgy non-narrative works for most of the film, it’s only when the action becomes slightly more external that the bleak, existentialist atmosphere is broken. The more standard the movie becomes, the less interesting it becomes. Eric is searching for his car, but the last forty minutes of the film feels like director David “Animal Kingdom” Michod is searching for an end to the story. When it does come it feels tacked on, as though Michod felt compelled to provide some sort of reason for Eric’s violent behavior. Stopping the film about a minute before he actually wraps the story would have been more in line with the bleak approach established in the first hour instead of the lame coda provided here. Sometimes it’s best not to know why characters do the things they do.
Pearce underplays Eric, allowing the menace of the character to grow with every unanswered question and steely glare. It’s a terrific performance that allows him to use his considerable on-screen charisma to get the audience inside Eric’s coldblooded behavior.
Pattinson takes the route of many pretty boy actors before him and uglifies Rey as much as possible. With blackened teeth, sweat stains on his clothes and “Sling Blade-esque” accent, he’s moving away from heartthrobdom into the next phase of his career. Nothing about this movie or his performance will appeal to the teenage Twihards who crammed theatres to see him as Edward Cullen. And that’s a good thing. Leaves more room for the rest of us.
“The Rover” is a frustrating movie, and not because of its glacial pacing or taciturn characters, but because it fails to push its desolate, neo-noir Western themes all the way.