In “The Rover,” director David Michod excels in creating a harsh and remorseless, post-apocalyptic atmosphere — one where everybody has either given up or is struggling to find a reason to hang on. 

It takes place 10 years after a worldwide economic collapse, in the sunbaked Australian outback. Everything’s dusty and barren and hot. And, for the most part, it’s still everyman for himself.

The movie revolves around Eric (Guy Pearce), who’s your quintessential post-apocalyptic drifter. He’s solo, of course, doesn’t talk unless he needs to and, when he does talk, it’s mainly in an unpleasant and semi-angry tone. 

“The Rover” gets going when Eric’s car is stolen by a group of fellow wasteland travelers. With the forced help of Rey (Robert Pattinson), an American whose brother is one of the thieves, Eric proceeds to track them down to retrieve his vehicle.  

As far as plot is concerned, there isn’t much: It’s as simple as two guys in search of a car. However, “The Rover” is more about character and atmosphere, something that’s sorely lacking from most mainstream cinema. 

Eric and Rey are basically polar opposites: Eric is intense, calm, calculating and slightly insane, while Rey is a stuttering dimwit. It comes as no shock when we first meet him that he’s been left for dead (by his brother and friends) after some kind of attack. If it weren’t for the fact that he knows where his brother and friends are heading (so Eric can get the car back), he would be of no use to Eric. 

But it’s this peculiar character juxtaposition that makes “The Rover” interesting. In a normal setting, these two would never interact with each other, and yet, when the apocalypse strikes and survival becomes the only priority, all kinds of relationships form. 

Not surprisingly, Pearce is very effective in playing Eric, a man who has nothing left to lose, who just wanders around the outback without purpose. But, at the end, we find out the very personal reason why he’s so driven to get his car back.

The real surprise in the cast is Pattinson, the “Twilight” star who gives an extremely authentic performance as a naïve, dimwitted, young man who’s trying to recover from a large dosage of harsh post-apocalyptic reality: essentially being abandoned by people he thought cared about him. It can be frustrating to watch his character stutter and stumble around at times, but Rey is, nevertheless, endearing, and by the end, you find yourself caring about him.

There is a general air of pessimism and futility in “The Rover,” which isn’t surprising in a gritty, post-apocalyptic thriller such as this one. However, amidst all the desolation and lawlessness, small traces of civilization and society try to claw their way back on to the continent. The film is partly about what things have value or, rather, what things should have value. 

“The Rover” is admittedly a slow-burn, and some viewers will be underwhelmed by how the movie plays out. But the picture does a phenomenal job of winding up the tension and creating a level of discomfort. Michod doesn’t give us a lot of time at the start to get comfortable with the movie’s environment or to get acquainted with the characters. He manages to keep us on edge the entire duration of the picture.

Cinematographer Natasha Braier lets most of the individual shots linger, which helps create even more tension, and Antony Partos’ stirring electronic score does its part to amp up the suspense — the quiet moments feel just as tense. 

“The Rover” isn’t for everyone, but those looking for a deliberate and compelling thriller should be pleased.

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