Aussie writer/director David Michôd burst onto the scene in 2010 with Animal Kingdom, a sweeping family-crime drama set in Melbourne’s grimy criminal underbelly, which had all the critics lauding him as the greatest thing to come out of Australia since somebody convinced Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze to dress up in drag and drive across the Outback. That’s quite the legacy to live up to, and he gets very, very close to doing just that with his follow-up, The Rover. But while both films are definitely the type of filmography entries that most filmmakers would be proud of, they couldn’t be more different.

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Based on a story idea from his Animal Kingdom star Joel Edgerton, Michôd’s sinewy sophomore effort is all grizzle and grit, so stripped down that you could easily think it atrophied, but powered along unerringly through mesmerizing performances and brutally efficient direction.

An opening title card – about as much exposition as the film’s spartan script is going to give you – informs us simply that this Australian Outback set post-apocalyptic exercise in broken human spirit and cloying dust takes place “10 years after the collapse”, before fading into the sunstroked image of Guy Pearce’s Eric sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, his face a study of hardening emotions as dead-man’s flies move in. Reaching some unknown resolve he exits his car and heads into a dirty, ramshackle bar of sorts to quench his thirst.

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While inside, a group come barrelling up the road in a vehicle. Based on the blood, money and frenzied shouting, they’ve just been involved in some sort of criminal endeavour gone wrong. Their fortunes don’t improve when during a bout of in-car in-fighting, they lose control of their vehicle, crashing it. Still stuck in flight mode, the gang of supposed thieves spill out of their car and proceed to steal Eric’s solitary vehicle, tearing up the road to continue their getaway. The moment Eric realizes what has happened, you clearly see a mental line being crossed as he becomes a man possessed and sets after them in their own abandoned vehicle. There is nothing he won’t do to get his car back.

Along the way, Eric crosses paths with Rey (Robert Pattinson), the halfwit brother of Henry (Scoot McNairy), left behind to die at the scene of the original crime after being shot in the gut. Eric needs Rey alive to tell him where Henry is heading with his car, while Rey has some murky reasons of his own to reunite with his former comrades. And so the crazy, wild-eyed, blood splattered chase is on.

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And there is plenty of blood splattered, wild-eyed craziness to be found here, as the duo run into gun running midgets, skin-crawling matriarchs and more in this burnt husk of a land where human society is just barely clinging on. This is a lawless world where life is cheap but basic amenities are expensive, and both can be taken away in the blink of an eye and the pull of a trigger.

But this is the type of Mad Maxian landscape we’ve seen before. What makes it makes it worth travelling again are the film’s two leads. As Rey, Pattinson is a revelation. Donning a lisping drawl and a permanently loopy expression, the ex-Twilight star is the very opposite of his former pin-up self. There’s a clear war of emotion and allegiance being waged behind those spacy eyes. The mega-popular vampire franchise may have turned Pattinson into a star, but this is where he turns into the talented actor we’ve long suspected him to be.

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We’ve always known Pearce to be fantastic, and here he’s at the top of his game once again. His Eric is for the most part a cypher, a glacial, almost inhuman agent of violence, but with a roiling maelstrom of emotional desperation bubbling just beneath the surface, constantly threatening to boil over. Just why is he so obsessed with getting back his car? How is he so proficient at violence? Is this one transgression merely the final proverbial straw to break a good man living in a broken world, or is there something else at play? Michôd teases out the resolutions to these puzzles till the very end, but even then, there are no easy answers. Or in the case of the meaning behind the films title, virtually no answer at all. This may not sit well with some viewers who like their narratives neatly tied up, but that’s not the movie Michôd is making here.

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Speaking of unanswered questions, there are a few plot holes that occasionally rear their heads, and while most of them are fairly minor, there is a big one surrounding the reason for Eric’s obsession with his car, and why he didn’t just explain this earlier to the gang. If he did though, we would not have got this movie, so I’m content with partially overlooking this one.

With its stripped down, taut pacing, and its harsh, almost eerie world courtesy of Michôd’s unflinching direction and a very sparse musical score and sound design, The Rover, is definitely not a film for fans of overblown pyrotechnics and big budget spectacle. If you like compelling, gripping acting and gritty filmmaking though, then you should definitely take a trip into this sunbaked near-future hell. Just bring some water, it’s rather pricey over here.

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The Rover opens in theatres on Friday, 22 August 2014.

Last Updated: August 21, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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