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Based on his work as a filmmaker, David Michôd, Australian partner of the brothers Edgerton (Joel and Nash), channels into the darkest corners of his heart to investigate the primal, animalistic urges that take mankind far away from the civilized façade we’ve constructed for ourselves. Animal Kingdom, Michôd’s debut feature film as a director (having written and directed a number of shorts), took audiences inside a family of criminals with only the barest of moral codes. The film focused on the youngest member, a 17-year-old boy (James Frecheville) forced to sink or swim with the “sharks” around him — particularly matriarch Janine (a chilling Jacki Weaver) — with only a good-hearted detective (Guy Pearce) intent on saving him. Kingdom stripped away all of the glamor and hyper-stylization we tend to expect from mob thrillers, leaving a mean dog-eat-dog core that seemingly ran counter to any sort of survival instinct for a herd of pack animals.

With The Rover, Michôd tackles an even more desperate slide from civilization in a story conceived with Joel Edgerton. A lone figure named Eric (Pearce), a man hardened by a life of killing and surviving after a global economic collapse, wanders the dusty post-apocalyptic landscape on an unspoken mission until his car is hijacked by a trio of armed and wounded men (Scoot McNairy, Tawanda Manyimo and David Field). Just moments before his car was stolen, Eric had settled down for a solitary drink in a near-abandoned outpost on the edge of the edge of the world and you get the sense that rather than being content to be alone with his thoughts, the drink is a futile attempt to retreat from the ghosts and horrors in his head.

That is why it comes as no surprise when he bolts into action, retrieving the other vehicle ditched by the trio, and sets upon their trail like a rabid hellhound.

He’s even willing, once he catches up with them, to confront them without a weapon. And he lets them know in no uncertain terms that he will pursue them until he regains possession of his car. It is an obvious mistake when they don’t kill him on the spot.

Intriguingly, that is part of the point of the story and a reflection of our assumptions about what it means to be a bad man in a harsh world. The trio has committed a robbery and botched the job, resulting in unwanted deaths including, they believe, the loss of Rey (Robert Pattinson), the mentally challenged brother of one of the men. They tried to rationalize leaving Rey behind, focusing on his challenges and how they made him less able to handle himself in a pressure situation, but they are the ones unprepared or unwilling to truly do whatever it takes to survive.

Eric, after being left for dead by the trio, wakes and begins his relentless pursuit. Along the way he meets up with Rey, deduces his connection to the trio and drags him along. Eric uses Rey to track the men and maintains an unflinching conviction to retrieve his car by any means necessary. Rey, on the other hand, has a naiveté that drives him to latch onto Eric as the last hope he has for a reunion with his brother, but as the two men journey further together, it becomes clear that Rey starts questioning his relationship with his brother. He also evolves, thanks to what the trio believed was his main fault, into a survivor on par with Eric.

And so, The Rover presents a fascinating yet bleak character study rooted in two unique performances. Pearce has always displayed an irresistible intensity; think back to the single-mindedness of his effort in Memento or his dogged do-gooder in L.A. Confidential. In fact, it could be argued that this brand of intensity is what has prevented him from becoming a bigger star. Hollywood produces heroic protagonists with a built-in vagueness to them; there’s only so much we can take before we recoil and Pearce also seems to cross that line.

On the flip side, Pattinson has made a splash by coming on a bit softer. His brooding vampire in the Twilight series spoke little but he lured female young-adult readers and moviegoers in with his doe-like eyes and his slight frame. They wanted to protect him, create a safe haven for him to enjoy his peaceful melancholy. Watching him here, opposite Pearce, you can see the trick that he and Michôd are playing: exploiting that impression we have, subverting our expectations, while carving out a new more fully realized persona for Pattinson.

It will serve him well as he moves forward. The old world might not be completely obliterated, but the end is nigh. Fortunately, as The Rover shows us, some trace of humanity remains, although it, and we, will never be the same again. (R) Grade: A- (tt stern-enzi)