Opens Friday

In 1983, ABC aired The Day After, a made-for-TV movie about the effects of a nuclear war in small-town America. It was hyped as the scary movie to end all scary movies. At the tender age of 11, I was forbidden to watch it.

Naturally, I sneaked down to the basement TV that night and endured it alone. I was thoroughly traumatized and developed a lifelong morbid obsession with post-apocalypse stories. I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies. It’s really not healthy.

It is useful, though, for assessing a movie such as THE ROVER, a stone-cold bummer out of Australia starring Guy Pearce as a kind of leaner, meaner Mad Max with fewer scruples and more depressive episodes. Directed and co-written by David Michôd (Animal Kingdom), it’s a grim piece of work, aggressively bleak and violent.

The film opens with a title card that reads “10 years after the collapse.” We never learn what the collapse was, but the Australian outback is now a wasteland inhabited by desperate survivors and the occasional military patrol. Armored cargo trains, marked with Asian ideograms and guarded by evil-looking mercenaries, rumble past crucified corpses.

Pearce plays lone wanderer Eric, a man of very few words who has the million-mile stare of the PTSD-afflicted. When a gang of equally desperate men steals his car, Eric embarks on a monomaniacal quest to track them down. His determination seems out of proportion. What’s so important about that car?

Eric encounters fellow desperado Rey (Robert Pattinson), a “halfwit” American with developmental issues and a nasty bullet wound. Pattinson is flat-out brilliant in the roleit’s the kind of performance that can change a career trajectory.

Michôd strings together a sequence of brutal set pieces as Eric pursues his vehicle by any means necessary. Among the highlights is an old circus encampment where the carnies are ruled by a figure known as “Grandma” (Gillian Jones), whose serenity is disconcerting. Later, when Eric and Rey hole up with a homesteading doctor, we learn more about Eric’s darkest depths, and what he’s capable of.

This is not a heroic role, and Pearce gives an intense, courageous performance. He plays Eric as a hardened survivor whose humanity has been scraped away by painful degrees. It’s a surprise that Pearce and Pattinson together are such an ace duo.

Unfortunately, weird pacing and editing undermine their efforts. Michôd lets the camera linger at tedious lengths on the most random things: Eric shaving, Rey walking across a road. These choices are baffling, and the dialogue is frustrating, too. There must be a dozen separate scenes that consist of one character repeating a single question and getting no answer.

I suppose this is all deliberate and Means Something on an existential level, but it slows the film down and handicaps the storytelling. The ending doesn’t play, either, though we finally find out about that car and can intuit the pitch-black humor the filmmakers were aiming for. The Rover is certainly worthwhile for fans of the genreit’s similar to The Road in its menacing tonebut it doesn’t add anything new to the post-apocalypse canon.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Bad Max”