Guy Pearce, left, and Robert Pattinson in a scene from "The Rover."
A24 Films/AP
June 18, 2014 4:58 PM EDT

A gruff man sits at a grungy karaoke bar in the desolate Australian outback. In the picture window behind him, we see something the man doesn’t notice: a truck skidding by, fast and upside down, trailing fiery dust.

This image — so sudden, startling and comically surreal that it might be from a Road Runner cartoon — comes early in The Rover, a modern western from writer-director David Michôd, who hatched the superbly sick family crime drama Animal Kingdom a few years back. The four men inside the overturned truck, thugs on an urgent getaway led by the vicious Henry (Scoot McNairy), clamber out and quickly commandeer the only other vehicle in sight: a Peugeot owned by the gruff man, Eric (Guy Pearce). It must mean a lot to him, since he spends the rest of the movie in the company of Henry’s younger brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) chasing the guys who stole it. Eric’s existential plea: “I want my car back.”

(READ: Corliss’s review of David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom)

The Rover is really two movies: the gritty little revenge drama on the screen, and the grand geopolitical parable in its subtext as explained in the press notes. First the parable: the movie relocates the elemental animosities of the old Hollywood western to the desolate Australian outback — a scorched purgatory for lost men. In imagining this desolate landscape and the creatures that might inhabit it, “Michôd thought a great deal about the violence and unrest of contemporary Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the writing of the film,” according to the notes. All that thought led him to apply the lawlessness in those African nations to the classic nihilist western: Sierra Leone meets Sergio Leone.

(READ: The life, death and troubled rebirth of the Western)

Michôd also flashes forward from the American past to the Australian near future — or, as the movie tells us, “10 years after the Collapse.” What Collapse? Not a nuclear explosion or a Martian invasion but a financial meltdown. Michôd has said The Rover is “about the rapacious capacity for under-regulated Western economies to destroy themselves, and it’s about the seemingly inevitable shift of global power.” As he sees it, Europe and the U.S. will soon choke on their greed, bringing financial ruin to what TIME co-founder Henry Luce proclaimed “the American Century” and speeding the rise of the Asian Century — East Asia, plus Australia as “a resource-rich third-world power.” Tough men from around the world, their ethics defined by their appetites, will go Down Under to work in the mines (for silver, copper, uranium, coal and natural gas) or steal from those who do.

That’s a provocative dystopian forecast, but it’s just a backstory Michôd dreamed or nightmared up, since none of its larger points are in the movie. What we actually see is a western pastiche shot in South Australia’s picturesquely parched Flinders Ranges, about hombres who ride in Peugeots, not on palominos. Eric loves and misses his car as intensely as Kirk Douglas cared for his aging horse in Lonely Are the Brave a half-century ago. He stalks through arid terrain similar to the charred landscape in the George Miller–Mel Gibson Mad Max movies. And he shares the clenched misanthropy of Clint Eastwood in Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy — except that Eric is the Man With No Car.

(READ: Apocalypse POW! — the Mad Max movies)

Even a loner needs a traveling antagonist. Abandoned and left to die by his brother, Rey becomes Eric’s hostage, his GPS system to Henry’s whereabouts and his chatty companion. (After a long monologue about his life back in the U.S., Eric asks, “Why’d you tell me that?”) Pattinson, freed from the fangirl celebrity of his Twilight Saga vampire movies, sports yellow teeth and a stench that could use a spritz of Dior Homme, the cologne the young star promotes in ads. He does a nice job portraying a slow-witted man who thinks he can charm or fool Eric, until the seeping of hope from his face testifies to his desperation.

Rey has little chance of ingratiating himself with Eric, a former farmer and soldier who long ago killed his wife and her boyfriend, and who shoots a dwarf point-blank out of little more than impatience. His most implacable enemies are flies, the vultures of the insect kingdom, which swarm around him but hardly earn his attention. When one takes home in his nose, Eric doesn’t so much as snort. A versatile actor whose résumé includes playing a drag queen (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), ramrod-righteous cop (L.A. Confidential), reverse amnesiac (Memento) and Marvel supervillain (Iron Man 3), Pearce has the solid commitment if not quite the pearly charisma for a western antihero.

(READ: Corliss on Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3)

Indeed, the movie’s most engaging characters are two women seen fleetingly: a bordello madam, Grandma (Gillian Jones), who, when Eric won’t tell her his name, smiles and says, “I’ll just call you My Baby,” and Dot (Susan Prior), a de facto medic. Attending to Rey’s wounds, she offers a glimpse of how human feeling might conceivably survive after the Collapse.

But Michôd wants The Rover to be nearly as much an ordeal for the audience as for its denizens — from the arid locations to the clangorous soundtrack, an artful mix of metallic screeches, air-raid wails, deranged wind chimes and the drone of an Aboriginal’s didgeridoo — and, often, as much a mystery. As in: Why, when Eric gets the thugs’ truck running and catches up with them, don’t they just shoot him and take their vehicle back? And why, when they knock him unconscious and drive away, don’t they take the truck too? Michôd not only stints on the big backstory but is sometimes weak on story.

For its writer-director, the movie marks a small slump between Animal Kingdom, with its much livelier and more complex criminal vectors, and his next project, The Operators, based on Michael Hastings’ book and starring Brad Pitt as U.S. General Stanley McChrystal. The Rover has an appealing misanthropy, but it never tops that early image of the overturned truck: a metaphor for a machine, and the men inside it, careering topsy-turvy into the scrap heap of history.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Scoot McNairy’s name.

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