Don’t take Eric’s car. Don’t take Eric’s car. Don’t take Eric’s … you get the idea.
Masterfully brought to life by Guy Pearce in a performance of pure controlled ferocity, Eric and his implacable, obsessive, stop-at-nothing quest to recover his stolen vehicle is the centerpiece of David Michod’s tense and remorseless “The Rover,” a film shot in 100-degree-plus heat that chills the blood as well as the soul.
Michod’s name may not be familiar, but his debut film, “Animal Kingdom,” was one of 2010’s great successes. This second venture, though very different, confirms the Australian director (who wrote the script and shares story credit with Joel Edgerton) as an impressive filmmaker with a talent for creating distinctive worlds and depositing us right in the heart of them.
“The Rover’s” spare, uncompromisingly bleak setting is a very particular one, a time 10 years after an economic collapse that is both unnervingly familiar yet dangerous, deranged and even malevolent in a way we have not experienced.
“I didn’t want to do a post-apocalypse movie, I didn’t want the world reduced to total anarchy,” the director explained at Cannes, where the film debuted. “I wanted a world that could be right around the corner, something tense and menacing because of its palpable plausibility.”
Being physically located in the Flinders Ranges area of the South Australian outback, a place where temperatures regularly go so high that Michod worried his actors might literally die, gives this film its specific sensibility.
Empty but not deserted, the universe of “The Rover” is populated by individuals exhausted by heat and despair. Seriously unhinged by civilization’s collapse (and atmospherically photographed by cinematographer Natasha Braier), these zombiesque citizens look like they’re either half-dead or wish they were.
Anthony Partos’ ominous, disquieting soundtrack underlines as well how casually amoral this place is, a world where nothing is safe and everything is for sale. The most rudimentary law and order exists only for those at the top, and everyone else resorts to graphic violence as the inevitable coda to all transactions.
Into this area that’s been drained of energy and purpose as well as people comes Pearce’s Eric. He’s a bearded, sweaty, sun-burned man, a hollowed-out, fierce-eyed individual whose thousand-yard stare could solidify molten lava.
It is the merest happenstance that involves Eric with a gang of thieves led by Henry (the shape-shifting Scoot McNairy) who are fleeing a botched robbery. Henry is distraught because his wounded brother, Rey, has been left behind at the scene of the crime, and the tensions of the moment lead to an accident that puts the gang in immediate need of another vehicle. Eric’s is right there, and they take it. Big mistake.
Like the proverbial dog with a bone, Eric is incapable of being dissuaded in his unrelenting quest to get his car back. It’s almost as if the search for his vehicle gives this burnt-out man a purpose in life, a reason to go on living.
After repeatedly questioning everyone he meets, endlessly repeating “I’m looking for my car” in a quiet monotone, Eric catches a break when he comes across Rey (an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson).
Eric locates what passes for the local doctor and has Rey patched up, not out of any sense of altruism but because he knows that Rey is the best source of information about his brother. But it’s not fated to be as simple as that.
Convincingly played by Pattinson in a role that’s as far from the “Twilight” series as he could possibly get, Rey is the polar opposite of the laser-beam Eric. Damaged, twitchy, unfocused, he is a lost soul in a pitiless world, and his evolving relationship with Eric provides an intriguing counterpoint to that man’s ferocious quest.
There is nothing noble about Eric’s mission or about the considerable violence he resorts to in order to get the job done, but Pearce’s willingness to give him an integrity of purpose mixes well with Michod’s intense, controlled direction and his ability to blend unexpected, empathetic character moments with all the killing. It’s a combination that all but guarantees that “The Rover” will put you away.