The Rover

Directed by David Michôd

Opens June 20

When Guy Pearce's character jumps into a dusty truck and tears off down a scrubby Outback highway in pursuit of three armed thugs who just stole his car, it's hard not to flash on Mad Max. There's the title card that announced that the trashed world we're seeing is what's left after a "collapse." There's the door-trim-level tracking shot that captures Pearce closing the distance in a low, baking sun. But when the thugs stop to face their pursuer, and Pearce stops, and then starts easing forward at a crawl toward the armed men in the distance, it clicks. You're not watching a post-apocalyptic action film. You're watching a Western.

David Michôd's The Rover doesn't explain what collapsed, exactly, or why or how the thugs' job went bad, or even what it was. It doesn't explain, at least at first, who Pearce's character is, or why he'll confront three armed men over a worn sedan that looks like it might have once been a BMW in a better life. What matters is that you soon understand that Pearce's character, like everyone else onscreen, is pretty much on his own in the middle of nowhere, where law enforcement is scant and helping a stranger could make you a small profit or could get you shot.

The credits identify Pearce's character as "Eric," though if anyone in the film mentions that, it's subliminated in a sullen mumble. But it is abundantly clear that he wants his car back, and is willing to face death—or deal it out himself—toget it. In pursuit, he encounters Rey (Robert Pattinson), the slow-witted little brother of one of the thugs, gutshot and left behind to die in the confusion. Eric patches up his new leverage and forces the boy to guide him to where his brother, and the car, might be. And as they make their way across the ruins of the already desolate Outback, Rey's allegiances begin to shift. Revered B-Western auteur Budd Boetticher made a half-dozen films that went a little something like this.

Though laconic and square-jawed beneath the stubble, Eric is no white-Stetsoned hero. He doesn't answer the questions he's asked. He's expedient to a lethal degree. Nothing about the lengths to which he goes to recover his car makes rational sense, not even when you ultimately understand why. Pearce's ropy muscles and self-cut hair sell the character's survivor nature, but it's the delicate minimalism of his features expression during the long pauses, probing stares, and tense confrontations that allow the character to deepen into something more than mere armed agency. Even the addled Rey senses that, while Eric would kill him, he's not a cruel man. Abandoned by his only other human connections, Pattinson's Rey seems to almost subconsciously respond to Eric's unswerving sense of purpose. And as they travel south from scabby settlement to scabby settlement, the violence they bring with them spreads almost virally, claiming innocents as often as not. (It's Pearce's show, but Pattinson does remarkable work here, shooing away the last cloying vapors of his Twilight-fueled teen-idol aura with Rey's mushmouth babble and almost canine simplicity.)

Of course, much of the reason these performances work is up to Michôd, who made a stellar debut with 2010's brilliant crime/family drama Animal Kingdom. The way he avoids facile exposition here forces you to lean in and pay attention, in an almost survivalist state of alertness yourself. And often his camera lingers unblinking on Eric—brooding, walking slowly across a road with a gun in his hand—forcing you to wonder at what might be happening inside that battered shell. His approach is both deeply empathetic and deeply unsentimental.

It doesn't hurt that Michôd's vision of a possible near-future is sketched with equal care. Money and civility still work, for those who have any, but violence and exploitation are handy tools, too. And sometimes all those forces coexist: Gillian Jones makes an indelible impression in a short scene as "Grandma," an elegant older lady poised in her perfect sitting room amid the rubble, offering Eric sex with one of her drugged boy prostitutes and unmanning him with her maternal perceptiveness.

But, again, the setting matters less than the scenario. Eric's quest allows Michôd to muse on guilt, allegiance, and what happens to people when they've nothing left to steer them but what's right in front of them and what's inside them. Though the plot picks up dramatic steam, it's clearly headed nowhere good. And then Michôd whips out perhaps the most quietly ballsy ending of the year, one that wraps up the stray threads and cauterizes them with perfect audacity—half Cormac McCarthy, half grindhouse. It's likely to make or break the film for you. Either way, you'll be thinking about it for a long time to come.