The lead character in the Australian import “The Rover” does not speak until about 15 minutes into the movie, and this sets the tone for this grim but surprisingly engrossing film, directed by David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”).
The character is named Eric and is played with a quiet intensity by Guy Pearce. His name is Eric, but the only way the audience learns that is by seeing it in the credits.
Michod wrote the screenplay, based on a story on which he collaborated with actor Joel Edgerton (“The Odd Life of Timonty Green”). The film moves slowly and requires patience but before long it is easy to get hooked.
The story takes place in Australia “ten years after the collapse.” What collapsed is not elaborated but as the narrative unfolds it seems to be a breakdown of the economy and infrastructure throughout the country. In the opening moments, Eric is seen sitting silently and solemnly in his dusty car. He eventually exits the car and shuffles into an old rundown building, which turns out to be a karaoke bar.
While he is gloomily having a drink, the scene cuts to a speeding pickup truck in which three excitable and armed men are fleeing from what probably was a botched robbery. One of the men, Henry (Scoot McNairy), is upset because they had to leave his brother Rey behind, possibly dead from gunshot wounds. The activity in the vehicle gets so intense and out of the control that the truck goes into a roll and ends up tangled in debris right outside the karaoke bar.
The three men climb out of the truck, spot Eric’s car, hot-wire it and drive on.
By the time Eric sees what is going on and runs outside, the three bandits have sped off in his car. He climbs into the wrecked truck and finds it still runs and manages to free it from the debris. He goes after his stolen car and follows it until the armed men stop and confront him. Eric demands they return his car and gets knocked cold and left by the road.
Meanwhile, Rey (Robert Pattinson from the “Twilight” series) is not dead. He regains consciousness and manages to stagger to a Humvee used by the military unit now serving as law enforcement, and drives off, nursing a wound to his left side.
Eric awakes to find that at least the thieves left him the truck. He continues on, making stops at whatever settlements he finds in this vast, mostly uninhabited Outback area of Australia, asking if the car with three men passed through. He also obtains a gun in a rather abrupt and bloody way.
During one of Eric’s stops, Rey also pulls into the area and seeing the truck thinks it is his brother and partners in crime, only to learn it is now in the possession of Eric.
Eric, upon learning Rey is a brother of one of the criminals, takes the man to a doctor (Susan Prior) for treatment, and afterward demands that Rey take him to wherever his brother and partners are hiding out. Rey is a bit handicapped mentally and is easily taken under control by Eric, who eventually convinces him that his brother must not have cared much for him if he was willing to leave him for dead.
Eric and Rey develop an uneasy alliance, and it is the interplay between these two men that captures the viewer’s attention. Eric is a man of few words and we learn very little of his background. Rey soon is revealed as a simple-minded man who is coerced with little difficulty. When he is rebuffed impatiently by Eric for talking about things in his past, he pouts and says, “not everything has to mean something.”
Another gripping aspect of the movie is why Eric is so obsessed with getting his car back. Because he has the truck, which serves just as efficiently for transportation as a car, there must be more to the stolen vehicle than just a possession.
Along the way, Eric mostly has to take charge of situations, only to be surprised when Rey proves resourceful at times.
Serving as a backdrop to shaky association between Eric and Rey is the gorgeous but unforgiving landscape of remote Australian Outback territory. During their journey, the two men encounter desperate people torn between trusting others as a means of survival or just fending for themselves.
Michod tracks the story along so that it is impossible to figure out what will happen if and when Eric and Rey catch up to the thieves. In the end, the viewer has been treated to a very simple story, yet the character development is so skillful, using minimal dialogue, that “The Rover” will rattle around in the viewer’s mind for a while.