Film Review: "The Rover" stuck on road to nowhere

"The Rover" is a slouching, bloody mess of a film that is ultimately defeated by its pretentious aims. It's the latest offering from David Michod, one of Australia's current batch of acclaimed talents. But here the director of "Animal Kingdom" presents an unfocused, terribly minimalist exercise with a script that would feel more at home as a student short.

The film stars Guy Pierce as Eric, a man of unknown origins who drives around a supposedly post-apocalyptic Australia (the opening titles inform us that the setting is "after the collapse," what that means only Michod knows). In this world having a car is a major boon and when his is stolen by a band of local renegades, Eric goes on a maddened journey to get his car back.

Along the way he finds the brother of one of the thieves, a simple-minded brute named Rey (Robert Pattinson of "Twilight" fame), who was left for dead by his sibling on a highway.

The ads for "The Rover" suggest a scorching, tense outback tale in the tradition of Cormac McCarthy, but instead Michod produces a film that feels aimless for most of its running time. The story lacks the clarity, prose and style of something like "The Proposition," that memorable, darkly poetic debut by fellow Aussie John Hillcoat, also starring Pierce, which takes place in the 19th century yet feels more apocalyptic than "The Rover."

This is more of a bad imitation of good Australian cinema. Michod gives us sunsets, wide, desolate spaces, but with little style and in a grueling pace. Nothing ever seems to happen in this movie because the characters are moved around from one meaningless scene to another. Like all road movies they make stops along the way toward their goal, but Michod only conjures up boring conversations in abandoned shacks or shady motels. Pierce and Pattinson talk about nothing except vague, metaphysical thoughts mixed with typical, macho road movie banter.

There are sudden bursts of graphic violence, but they feel out of place. Consider one scene where Pierce tries to negotiate the purchase of a gun from a dwarf belonging to some abandoned circus troupe now living in a ghost town. As they negotiate prices Pierce suddenly blows the dwarf's brains out with the gun he wants to buy. It feels jarring but in the wrong way. There isn't a proper context for the violence here as in a Hillcoat film. At one point a military humvee appears out of nowhere to shoot at Pattinson in his hotel room after he accidentally shoots a little girl (if that sounds confusing dear reader, trust this writer, it's accurate).

Not even the film's setting is convincing. Unlike "Children Of Men," "Time Of The Wolf" or even Hillcoat's own "The Road," Michod never successfully establishes a futuristic, apocalyptic tone for his story. The set ups could take place right now in any desolate part of Central California (Bakersfield?) or Mexico. The only time the film comes close to taking us to a disturbing future is during a scene where Pierce and Pattinson drive down a road and see crucified corpses on electrical poles.

In terms of the performances Pierce delivers what we usually get from him in these roles: Clenched jaw, little smiling. Pattinson is more of a stand out only because he switches from his usual, cold roles like the aimless oligarch in "Cosmopolis," and here creates a truly pathetic, mentally impaired brute. Even the rotting teeth come to life with his mumbling accent.

"The Rover" is in the tradition of the kind of hip, post-modern filmmaking that's in vogue these days. It's a style where the director is pretending to say something by not saying anything at all. Michod shows us arid vistas, blood and guts occasionally and thinks he's giving us dialogue eventhough there's barely any except for sparse comments. But it's up to audience to figure out what this film wants to convey. The world is violent? Yes, we know that. Life can be cruel? No doubt about it. It's terrible to have your car stolen? No argument there.

Although I'm deeply tempted to spoil the ending, there might be readers still inspired to go see this effort (although box office figures disagree) and so I won't give it away. However, Michod commits the gravest crime by forcing his audience to ride with Pierce and Pattinson only to arrive at the most anti-climactic, uninspired ending you might see in a road movie this year or for many to come. The payoff simply isn't worth the blood and tears and when Pierce finally opens the trunk of his car it's truly a dog of a scene.

"The Rover" is a depressing experience and one of those rare moments where choosing a Hollywood offering over the indie might actually be the wiser choice.