Stripped-down and taut, ‘Rover’ a study of a driven Guy Pearce

Like a “Road Warrior” writ small, “The Rover” skitters across a slightly futuristic Australia, a car chase pitched against a great void. But this doesn’t feel like an adventure movie, more like a stripped-down Western about a single-minded quest.

The single mind belongs to Eric (Guy Pearce), a blasted soul whose car is stolen while he’s getting a drink at a desolate spot in the outback. His wheels have been taken by three criminals fleeing a robbery; they’ve dumped their getaway vehicle outside.

This means Eric can actually commandeer their still-drivable car and make pursuit. Or, he could just take their car and drive away. In this wide-open world, that seems like a fair trade; yet he spends the rest of the film brutally tracking the thieves down. He has to have that car.

There’s no law enforcement around to set things right; the dog-eat-dog world is the result of an unexplained economic collapse, which has made people even more suspicious and corrupt than usual.

Complicating the hunt is a wounded robber, Rey (Robert Pattinson, of “Twilight” renown), left behind by his confederates. His trajectory crosses Eric’s path at an inopportune moment, and the two men are uneasily joined in the search.

“The Rover” is written and directed by David Michôd, whose 2010 “Animal Kingdom” heralded a tough new talent on the scene. Maybe because it’s so lean on the bone, “The Rover” is even better.

An exceedingly grim Guy Pearce — incongruously dressed in shorts throughout — is absolutely locked in to Eric’s survival mode. This is a figure without history and beyond morals, so his trek across the wasteland is not heroic, just determined. Think Mad Max, but without all the cuddly warmth.

At this point, Pearce has complete control of his onscreen presence, so it’s interesting to watch him opposite heartthrob Pattinson. Rey is dull-witted and childlike, and, although Pattinson might be over-busy at times, his twitchy performance makes for an effective contrast with his co-star.

I like movies that provide creature comforts and eye candy, but there’s something to be said for a film boiled down to essentials (in that sense, the barrenness of Australia’s Flinders Ranges is the perfect backdrop).

Michôd is playing a tricky game here: Lean too far on the abstract nature of the quest, and the movie turns into a parody of itself. Mostly he’s gotten the mix right, and “The Rover” cuts a strong, bloody groove.

“The Rover” (3½ stars)

A taut, if bleak, look at a grim fellow (Guy Pearce) trying to retrieve his stolen car in the barren Australian outback. Pearce is well-matched against Robert Pattinson in this slightly futuristic stunner from “Animal Kingdom” director David Michôd.

Rating: R, for violence, language

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Pacific Place, Thorton Place Stadium.

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