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Slow, gritty ‘Rover’ grinds its way into your memory

The great Italian director Sergio Leone finally has a successor, and he’s Australian. Writer-director David Michôd, who was overpraised four years ago for “Animal Kingdom,” will probably be underpraised for “The Rover,” a more distinctive movie that’s harder to embrace right away.

Like Leone’s so-called “spaghetti Westerns,” it begins on an empty frontier: “Australia 10 years after the collapse,” as a title card tells us. The pacing is consistently slow. The antihero has no name – he’s called “Eric” in the credits, but I never heard that word in the picture – and strides through the story seeking vengeance and primitive justice. We root for him, to the limited extent we do, because he’s marginally less bad than the people he stalks. He never answers questions or explains himself, and not until literally the final minute of the film do we understand his motivation.

Guy Pearce isn’t as physically formidable as Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson in Leone’s classics, but he’s just as determined and dangerous. We learn only bits of information about him as he goes, and they’re not savory. Only the glint of a tear in his eye in the opening scene suggests he shares emotions with the rest of us, and we wait until the last scene to find out what put it there.

Pearce, who made a splashy worldwide debut 20 years ago in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” has always had the chameleonic ability to disappear into a role. (Think of him as foppish Edward VIII in “The King’s Speech.”) So the surprise here is Robert Pattinson, who also gets fully under the skin of a slow-witted American criminal named Rey.

This gut-shot patsy has been left at the scene of a crime by his brother and two other men. The fleeing threesome wreck their truck near Eric’s home and steal his car for a getaway. He pursues them – and pursues and pursues – with Rey in tow. When Eric gets Rey a doctor’s care (solely to use him as a pawn) and convinces him he’d been left for dead, the pitiful Rey thinks about changing sides.

Michôd hasn’t worked hard enough to make details fit. When Eric tracks down the car thieves in their own truck, which now works again, they show inexplicable mercy. They could switch vehicles, kill him outright or drive off in both car and truck, leaving him to walk home if he can. Instead, they stupidly knock him out next to the truck, drop the keys a short distance away and drive off in the car.

But Michôd gets the atmosphere just right. Australia has been reduced to even bleaker conditions than in the “Road Warrior” series, where amoral people enjoyed themselves at the expense of others. Nobody gets pleasure from any activity in “The Rover,” except possibly a gentle doctor (Susan Prior), whose kindness is repaid with suffering. Long shots of landscapes, dry and desolate under slate-colored skies, make this no place we ever want to be.

The title could apply to the much-traveled antihero and/or the vehicle he uses in relentless pursuit. But I wonder whether it also has a third meaning, in a strange joke that crops up in the last few shots. Where “Animal Kingdom” offered slightly less than met the eye and ear, “The Rover” offers slightly more.

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