Australian director David Michôd’s second film, The Rover, is part of a rich heritage of Australian dystopian cinema that combines the destructive power of cars with the country’s harsh, sparsely populated rural areas and desert interior. A gritty crime drama, it is among the small group of Australian films with a true noir sensibility — a bleak atmosphere and a narrative where events start badly and end up worse — on a brief list that also includes Michôd’s debut 2010 effort, Animal Kingdom.
The Rover is set in the Australian outback 10 years after an unspecified global financial collapse. It opens with a lone, unnamed traveler (Guy Pearce) sitting behind the wheel of his dusty Holden Commodore car, before going into a roadside café. The traveler’s gaunt, weather-beaten features, the café’s ramshackle appearance, its silent, heavily armed Asian owners, and the Cambodian love song booming through the establishment’s aged speakers combine to create a feeling of impending menace and a sense of geographical and cultural confusion.
The film suddenly shifts to three men driving through the desert, fleeing an unspecified crime gone wrong. One of the men, Henry (Scoot McNairy), is angry about having to leave his brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson, of Twilightfame), for dead at the scene of the crime. The argument becomes physical, distracting the third man, the driver, and their vehicle veers off the road. The three men emerge from their car and grab the first alternative vehicle they see, which just happens to belong to the lone traveler, and take off again.