Could it be their position on the edge of the world, that formidable expanse of outback, or something in the water?

Either way, Australian directors seem to have a fondness for dystopia.

In the 1980s George Miller gave us one of the great futuristic dystopias with his Mad Max trilogy, stories of a brutalised hero, rabid villains, very hot cars and a godforsaken desert. In 2009, fellow Australian David Hillcoat adapted Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road. And before Miller returns to Max next year, David Michod offers another bleak view of a man on the road at the end of the world.

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The Rover opens with a caption stating "10 years after the collapse". Nothing more overt is said about what has happened to Australia, or indeed the rest of the world, though clearly the disaster is economic rather than natural. There's mention of mining and an indication of a functioning society in Sydney; all we see is an outback of minute, ramshackle communities and itinerancy, the buying and selling of stuttering existence - food, fuel and bullets.

The rover is Eric (Guy Pearce), whose ferrety face, too long in the sun and dominated by a shaggy beard, is the first thing we see, staring into space. He snaps himself back to life, leaves his car and enters a bar, where Asian pop is playing on the radio and he sits alone with a drink. A few minutes later - after a spectacular image of a truck flying through the air past the window - his own vehicle is stolen. This car is the only thing that Eric cares about. And the rest of the movie involves his dogged attempt to get it back.

It's been stolen by a gang, escaping from a crime gone awry, during which Henry (Scoot McNairy) has left his wounded brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) behind. As fate would have it, Eric crosses paths with Rey, forcing the younger man to lead him across the desert to the gang's hideout.

This is not a conventional drama by any stretch of the imagination, a fact that is crystallised in a brilliant early sequence in a seedy brothel, where Eric seeks information.

"I'm looking for my car. It's got three people in it," he breathes, not unlike Eastwood in his pomp. "What a thing to get worked up about, in this day and age," answers the brothel madam, over her knitting. Eric buys a gun from a dwarf, thinks hard about killing the woman, makes it abundantly clear that he's not a hero, not even an anti-hero, but a man way past the end of his tether. We're desperate to know how he could sink so low.

While Eric is capable and tough, Rey is a simpleton, vulnerable and likeable. We're used to Pearce immersing himself deep into character, but Pattinson is a revelation here. He was good in Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, though the well-dressed millionaire didn't feel like a stretch; with Rey, he puts Twilight firmly into the shade forever. What's good about the performance is not the stuttering thought and speech, but the sense of the young man growing in confidence in the company of his bitter companion.

Confirming the potential he demonstrated in his crime thriller Animal Kingdom, Michod achieves here a control of tone and pacing that creates a convincing sense of a world gone to pot, and makes a slender plot compelling. The soundtrack plays a key role, whether an electronic dirge for the desert, or a mournful piano signifying that a rare moment of light is about to be snuffed out.