"WHAT A THING to be worked up about, in this day and age," a woman says, slow and calm. She's talking about a stolen car, and she's talking to Eric (Guy Pearce), the man it's been stolen from. And Eric is, indeed, very worked up—the sort of clenched-jaw, fury-eyed worked up that sometimes results in him shooting people in the head.

To be fair, the "this day and age" part makes all the difference: The Rover's apocalyptic wasteland—a sprawling, sun-strangled Australia, "10 years after the collapse"—is a less-than-ideal place for anyone without a car. And Eric will do anything to get his back—including taking hostage Rey (Robert Pattinson), a younger man who might know where the car is headed. Thus, a brutal sort of buddy flick: Eric and Rey traverse this dusty, bloody outback, by turns avoiding and exploiting the few tattered remnants of civilization: a struggling, desperate homestead; trains loaded with glowering mercenaries; a long line of telephone poles along a road, each holding aloft a dried-out, crucified corpse.

Early on, it's easy to find things to compare The Rover to—Cormac McCarthy's The Road, George Miller's Mad Max, Kutcher & Scott's Dude, Where's My Car?—but one of the many stunning things about the latest from David Michôd (who previously directed 2010's Animal Kingdom) is how quickly his film crystallizes into a hard-edged, nerve-wracking thing all its own. Natasha Braier's gorgeous cinematography helps, as do the film's sharp edits and pared-down plot, which gives the always-excellent Pearce and the surprisingly not-awful Pattinson room to roam. Thanks to Pearce and Pattinson, the stark intensity that dominates The Rover isn't only present in its land, but also in its people. Even as we're overwhelmed by melancholy—with each frame, we become more certain that these characters' world has gone irrevocably to shit—we're still surprised and fascinated by the people in it. Which actually makes The Rover's day and age not so different from ours.