There’s a thin line between the iconic and the generic, and “The Rover,” a grim post-apocalyptic drama from down under, wanders back and forth across it in an adrenaline daze. How many times does the world have to end in the movies, and with how many different kinds of bangs and whimpers?
The movie does ugly up its two leading men, the fine Australian actor Guy Pearce and the much-mocked “Twilight” heartthrob Robert Pattinson. Pearce looks old for the first time in a movie, and while Pattinson will never not be gorgeous, his character, a naive cretin named Rey, could be read as a conscious attempt to obliterate audience expectations. At one point Rey tunelessly sings the chorus of Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” — “Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful” — and at least part of the joke is aimed at the scoffers out there in the dark.
But the song is also meant as a remnant of a vapid culture that has ceased to be. “The Rover” takes place “10 years after the Collapse” in the desert wastes of the outback, where the tatters of humanity play out their lives on a brutal, sunbaked stage. In the opening moments, a trio of fleeing robbers steals a car belonging to the title character (Pearce), a beady-eyed loner who pursues them with a silent, implacable intensity that stretches over the rest of the film. The movie sticks to one of the cardinal rules of the Post-Apocalypse genre (which in turn took it from the western): He who is most lethal says the least.
Eventually the Rover comes across Rey, who was wounded in the robbery and abandoned by his brother Henry (Scoot McNairy) and the other two criminals (David Field and Tawanda Manyimo), much the way the slowest puppy in the litter might get left behind. Since Rey is the Rover’s one link to his precious car, he becomes the older man’s captive and, after a while, a substitute son. Rey barely remembers a world before the Collapse — he could be the Feral Kid from “The Road Warrior” with a few years on him — and Pattinson creates a portrait of a devolved boy that’s genuinely touching at times.
But “The Rover” is more interested in pursuing its rehashed man-with-no-name minimalism to diminishing returns. There are specific images that pin the story to an imagined past: a line of crucified bodies by the highway, the makeshift general stores that sell canned goods for US dollars, the notable absence of women. Aside from a doctor (Susan Prior), a child (Daria Wilton), and one spooky old lady (Gillian Jones), this is a man’s world and a cruel one, especially (and as always) if your skin isn’t white.
But while the movie is consistently watchable, its attempt to create a parched existential landscape where all that matters is what you do or who you kill ultimately seems pretty thin. Even the Rover’s past, when it starts dribbling out, feels like a familiar litany of B-movie trauma. We do finally learn why the character is so obsessed with getting his car back, but the revelation lacks the dramatic weight it needs. It’s a punch line rather than a punch to the gut.
The director and co-writer is David Michod, who had a left-field hit with the family crime saga “Animal Kingdom” in 2010. Along with co-writer Joel Edgerton (who played Tom Buchanan in the recent “The Great Gatsby”), Michod is part of a crew of smart young Australian moviemakers working together as the Blue-Tongue Films collective. They’ve made some terrific shorts (“Spider,” “I Love Sarah Jane,” many others, most of which can be found on YouTube or Vimeo) and a handful of striking features, and they’re pushing their cinematic crafts in interesting directions. The most memorable aspect of “The Rover” may be the score composed by Antony Partos, a series of industrial groans and scrapes that suggest a woolly mammoth mourning a dying civilization.
Yet the movie itself doesn’t feel as thought out. “Not everything has to be about something,” the Rover tells his traveling companion at one point, and maybe Michod is warning an audience against reading too much into his bloody little fable. Sometimes, though, less is simply less.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.