There's something especially annoying about a movie that veers between mostly good and very good for its entire running time, only to complete puke itself apart in the last few minutes. I present to you The Rover, writer-director David Michôd's sophomore feature after his impressive but in many ways frustratingly commonplace crime thriller Animal Kingdom. Two times isn't enough to make a tradition, but that's twice now that Michôd has almost succeeded in making a real genre classic, but just couldn't quite make it happen, and if it happens a third time, someone will have to give him a stern talking-to about the right things to do with one's obvious talent.

In the case of The Rover is that old chestnut, the Post-Apocalyptic Australian Movie About Desert Wanderers and Their Cars. It's not quite right to call the movie a knock-off of, or homage to Max Max and its series, so much as a distillation of themes, tropes, and iconography from across the gamut of post-apocalypse storytelling: the film Mad Max, the book The Road, the video game Fallout. Wisely, the film does not try to be about the fall (which it alludes to elliptically in an opening card, white on black: "Australia, ten years after the collapse"), nor the state of society after the fall; it takes for granted our ability to quickly tease out the general shape and scale of how much things have gone to shit, and uses that as the basis for a kind of character study. And I say "kind of" rather advisedly, for that's really the whole trick of the thing: it's actually more of an anti-character study, dedicating itself not to the explication of how one man's personality functions, but to the explication of how and why one man would cease to have a personality. It's a character study set in a world where character has become a liability, and our protagonist as succeeded in eradicating his.

That protagonist is very clearly and persistently never given a name: we can think of him as the rover of the title, though the end credits call him Eric, in a clear-cut case of bullshit. In any case, he's played fantastically by Guy Pearce, in the sort of performance that doesn't announce itself as "acting" in any conventional sense: Pearce doesn't do much with his line deliveries, since he only speaks in curt bursts of words; and he doesn't do much with his face, which is grimy, bearded, and mostly inflexible. It's his coiled-up body language that impresses: tension that speaks to a history of survival and violence, animalistic in the sense that human beings are animals, and the world the film depicts is one in which we're not much else.

At its best - and it really does spend a lot of time at its best, for something that left me feeling so itchily unsatisfied - The Rover plays like a fable of hopelessness, depicting a world where the state of mind that defines every character is the degree to which they remain optimistic that something like order and reason still exists. The rover is at one extreme end of that: he exists for nothing, seemingly, but the individual moment, having concluded that no future moment is likely to be so different from any other that it's worth bothering about any of them. He is a nihilist in an unusually exquisite and pure form: not your teenage nihilist, who just hates, and not your cynical nihilist, who uses it to secretly assume superiority. He is a nihilist because there's nothing not to be nihilistic about: he lives in a laweless, amoral world, nothing he does again will ever matter, and nobody will ever care. The film's plot occurs when three men - Henry (Scoot McNairy), Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo), and Archie (David Field) - steal his car from the little shithole in the middle of nowhere where he... lives? Is temporarily resting? It doesn't really matter. The point is, the three are in a frenzy, having recently fucked up a robbery that left Henry's brother dead, and have managed to crash their truck. The see a car just sitting there outside a little shack, and they steal it; the owner of that car manages to see it just too late to catch them, though he's able to get their truck started to follow them. Along the way, he finds that Henry's brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) isn't so dead as all that, and he grabs the young man of apparently limited mental capacity, first to help him track the fleeing robbers, then because he latches onto Rey as a companion in need of help and care. But that comes very late.

For the great bulk of its running time, The Rover appears to be a very simple, direct, feverishly focused depiction of a man who exists in such a rundown, stateless place of being that matters of motivation are simply pointless: his car was stolen, it is his car, he will retrieve his car. It's as brutal, bleak and nasty as you could please, while also being one of the most intelligent, unromantic, serious attempts to grapple with what actual post-collapse life might function like that I can call to mind. It suggests, rather cruelly, that we're on track to our own meaningless non-society, and demands that we ponder for at least the film's running time what it might feel like to live that way, to actually have no hope and no hope of hope. Until the end. I won't give away what happens; there's a protracted ending sequence that I didn't much care for, but was willing to concede that endings are hard, and sometimes the thing that seems right is to give the viewer the raucous payoff that the rest of the film has so rigidly avoided, even if it wasn't all that right. But the last, literally, 30 or 60 seconds of the film, are just fucking dumb - we find out that the rover had a motivation all along in a twist that completely shifts everything that has played out for the entire movie, but not to such interesting effect that it was worth having lied about it the whole time. I still like the movie in my head better, but the movie explained by the twist would be just fine, if it had explained itself early enough to inform the experience of watching the movie. But coming as it does, it's just a tedious "fuck you" - not even a fun "fuck you", the kind of "fuck you" that reinforces the film's nihilistic themes. It's a mean "fuck you" that exists only because, what the hell, twists are a thing you can end movies with. So why not end 'em that way.

And the twist having so completely broken the movie's spell, it becomes a lot easier to start carping on all the things that movie had been doing wrong the whole time, the scenes that don't play, the concepts that are bonkers in the wrong way, the flares-ups of melodrama and trite theme-explaining that were tolerable when the thing was a savage beast of driving momentum, and end up feeling like a gifted but undisciplined writing student doing a really swell Cormac McCarthy impersonation without McCarthy's cosmic gravity.

Now, parts of the movie still work no matter what: Pearce is brilliant, and Pattinson is at his career-best, playing a man who looks, at first, like an undistinguished Faulknerian man-child before he slowly reveals himself to be a dreamer, a moral thinker, an innocent who would have fit better in the pre-collapse world he apparently has some unfocused nostalgia for. Given all the ways the performance could have been annoying, it's pretty great that Pattinson turns his character's puppy-like craving for someone to guide him into an interesting, moving performance. The thing is also blessed by some breathtaking cinematography by Natasha Braier, which is by no stretch of the imagination "attractive", but presents the sand-blasted Outback in which the film takes place with amazing potency, stressing the vacantness, the far horizon, and the monochromatic dustiness. It's an amazing vision of the end of the world.

Basically, The Rover is a film I would have slightly adored if it had ended 10 minutes earlier, liked if it had ended one minute earlier and can't quite tolerate the way it is. Does that make it a failure? I don't know that I've quite worked that one out yet. It makes it hellaciously frustrating, that's for goddamn sure, and not the kind of frustrating that still ends up feeling rewarding, somehow.