Bye, Haters: On Robert Pattinson's Bold Career Reinvention in "The Rover"

*Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who, yes, was once an outspoken Robert Pattinson hater. Consider this his epiphany.

In the grimy and often brutal post-apocalyse road movie The Rover, one particular moment is notable for seeming like a deleted scene from a Disney Channel special. Even odder, it features Robert Pattinson, the international heartthrob who cemented his dreamboat status as the Twilight franchise's emo vampire Edward Cullen. The night before Pattinson's character, Rey, heads into a guns-blazing final showdown against his brother Henry (Scoot McNairy) and his crew, he sits inside of a car and listens to what's surely the oddest song choice in any movie this year: Keri Hilson's "Pretty Girl Rock." Yes, the bubbly 2010 female empowerment anthem; also, the antithesis of everything seen and heard elsewhere in The Rover.

Yet it works. Story-wise, "Pretty Girl Rock" powers a sublime moment of connection, with Rey clinging to whatever semblance of his pre-apocalypse life he can through the feel-good whimsy of an R&B diva's pop single. But in a meta sense, the sight of Robert Pattinson singing along to "Pretty Girl Rock" in The Rover is humorously defensive. Pattinson recites Hilson's hook: "Don't hate me 'cause I'm beautiful." He's asking that you, the viewer, forget about Eddie Cullen's pretty-boy appeal and embrace the fact that Pattinson's starring in a film prestigious enough to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. And he's not only starring in The Rover—he's acting his ass off.

Written and directed by Australian filmmaker David Michôd, The Rover is Mad Max minus the shoulder pads and mohawks. Rey's a nice, possibly intellectually disabled guy trying to survive in post-apocalyptic wasteland, a decade "after the collapse" and mere days following an off-screen shootout that left him all alone with a bullet in his side. Henry fled from the ordeal, thinking Rey'd been killed, and now the younger, weaker sibling is the awkward sidekick to Eric (Guy Pearce), a former Aussie soldier who's determined to retrieve the car Henry and his ragtag posse stole at gunpoint. Eric is humorless, a shell of a man hardened by his desperate situation and pushed to the brink by Henry's kleptomania. Rey, on the other hand, is a warm guy, constantly struggling to express himself through a Sling-Blade-esque speech impediment, nervous ticks, and visible insecurity.

Unlike Pattinson, who's in total command of the role's atypical nature.

The Rover represents the culmination of everything Pattinson's done since bidding The Twilight Saga adieu. As easy as it could've been for the now-28-year-old English actor to seek out whatever superhero role's currently available or sign onto a saccharine Nicholas Sparks adaptation, he's taken the much harder but infinitely more rewarding route. While fellow Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner's starring in a Parkour action movie (you've been warned), Pattinson has been working with acclaimed directors like David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis, the forthcoming Maps to the Stars) and Werner Herzog (the in-post-production Queen of the Desert) and plotting projects with Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers) and critical darling Olivier Assayas (Carlos, Something in the Air). With every new move he makes, it’s getting more and more difficult to trivialize Pattinson.

Especially when he's giving performances as excellent as his turn in The Rover. Glancing over Pattinson's pre-Rover filmography makes something clear: He's never been asked to do more than look handsome and allow female viewers to project whatever they want onto him. As Edward Cullen, he's frustratingly vacant throughout all four Twilight installments, blankly staring at the camera whenever he's not flashing robotic googly-eyes toward the similarly better-than-Twilight-ever-let-her-be Kristen Stewart; in his two non-Twilight movies during that franchise's reign, Remember Me and Water for Elephants, he's a nondescript everyman searching for a tangible purpose.

Even in Cosmopolis, Pattinson's first foray into cinephile-friendly prestige, he's a cipher—David Cronenberg's film is a monotone and occasionally nutty evisceration of capitalism, a theme he smartly transfers through Pattinson's intentionally robotic performance. Unlike the superficially engineered heart-tugger Edward Cullen, Cosmopolis' Eric Packer character afforded Pattinson the opportunity to gamely acknowledge his perceived drabness.

For The Rover, Michôd challenged Pattinson to finally do more than just be present. Tapping into several emotions (fear, desperation, anxiety, wavering hopefulness), it's his most complicated and multi-dimensional performance. And it's entirely successful. Pattinson's first scene should instantly erase any of his haters' Tiger-Beat-minded preconceptions: lying on the ground, bloodied up and clutching a gun, Rey tries to gather himself as he catches sight of a man whose throat has been ripped open struggles to breathe. There he is, one of pop culture's biggest teenybopper pin-ups, looking like a wounded delinquent writhing on a landscape that's essentially a sun-drenched graveyard.

That prettiness-against-grimness juxtaposition certainly isn't lost on Michôd, a gifted filmmaker (revisit his first-rate 2010 crime flick Animal Kingdom for more evidence) who cast Pattinson to subvert the actor's reputation. "I love the idea of being able to take a person who I can only imagine his talents have been grossly underestimated," the director told Screen Crush. "I love the surprise and the revelation of it."

An ingenious move, for sure. Rey's childlike fragility is The Rover's most valuable asset. Through his puppy-dog vulnerability, Pattinson lends the largely bleak film a surplus of much-needed heart and soul. One of The Rover's strongest sequences finds Pattinson in a rundown motel room, bullets tearing through the door and wall from the outside; having never been a fighter before, he's forced to fire back, but his own gunfire leads to an unwanted and heartbreaking casualty. Pattinson owns the sequence, relaying Rey’s exasperation and combustion without any words.

"You don't learn to start fighting, your death’s gonna come real soon," Eric tells Rey moments before the motel incident. Michôd might as well have written that line for Pattinson's agent to deliver circa Bill Condon shouting "That's a wrap!" on the Breaking Dawn - Part 2 set. Defying expectations, Pattinson has battled his way out of the Twilight machine and established himself as one of Hollywood's most exciting young stars. The Rover, home to the performance which Pattinson needs to hence forth measure himself against, is his coming-out party as an actor who deserves your respect.

If Harmony Korine knows what's good, he'll get Pattinson to meta-rap along to Jay Z's "Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit" in whatever movie they (hopefully) end up making together. The man formerly marginalized by Edward Cullen has earned the right to recklessly gloat. For which, of course, there's always this other Keri Hilson record.

The Rover opens in limited theaters tomorrow, via A24 Films, before expanding nationwide in the coming weeks.


The Rover puts Robert Pattinson on road to redemption

The vampire is dead. Or at least by now he should be. With The Rover, the new film from Animal Kingdom director David Michod, Robert Pattinson has finally shaken off the Twilight tag that threatened to define him forever as an actor.

In The Rover, he has an accent from America's deep south, bad teeth and a strange emotional dependency on others. It's a role that has attracted some very positive reviews: Variety critic Scott Foundas talked about "a career-redefining performance ... that reveals untold depths of sensitivity and feeling".

Pattinson is a relaxed interview subject. He has a hearty laugh, and the air of someone who hasn’t worked out all his lines in advance, but he's also ready to explain and explore what interests him. He’s serious about his work, and keen to make movies with people he admires and respects.

He's aware that he's getting favourable reviews for The Rover. He's happy about this, of course, he says, "because I really love the movie". But when it comes to his performance, he admits, "I always think of it as a work in progress, and it just gets frustrating, thinking about things you could fix." At the same time, when he read the script, it was one of those rare occasions when he connected immediately with a role. "Maybe because it was so loose - you could really do almost anything with the character. You could project anything onto it. But I don't know, I could hear the voice in my head almost immediately, I could feel a walk ... and that's only happened to me three or four times since I've started acting.”

Michod plunges the audience swiftly into the world of the film, a near-future in which Australia has become a run-down, devastated, hand-to-mouth economy. There's an almost documentary-like immediacy, as there's virtually no explanation of how this collapse has happened. Early on, Pattinson's character, Rey, is taken in hand by Pearce's character, for reasons that gradually become clear. Yet there are many things about Rey that don't get spelled out or remain ambiguous: this is another aspect of the film Pattinson appreciates.

He spent almost no time with Pearce before shooting started. "I guess because I'd auditioned a year before, and talked to David a lot. I already basically made my mind up how I wanted to play the character. I had to keep my mouth shut, figuring out what he wanted to do, it was kind of scary." He wondered what would happen if Pearce's interpretation was totally at odds with his vision of his own character. "It's worked out great now," but there were a couple of moments at the beginning, he says, when it felt as if they were in completely different films.

American actor Scoot McNairy plays Rey's brother, from whom he has become separated. Pattinson's a big fan of the chameleon-like actor whose recent films include Killing Them Softly, Monsters and 12 Years a Slave. "The funny thing about Scoot is you can never recognise him," Pattinson says. "I was talking to him about Argo the other day, and I didn't realise he was in it. Absolutely no idea." He gives one of his heartiest laughs. "Our whole conversation, he thought I was joking."

He doesn't mind telling stories against himself, and has a self-deprecating way of talking about certainties. "I don't know if I'm necessarily any good at 'sculpting a career' or anything," he says, "but I know what I want to do. I'm not very good at finding or getting massive movies." It turns out that he's talking about life after Twilight. What he means, he says, is that "I don't get approached very much about superheroes and stuff."

He has, however, plenty of interesting projects under way or awaiting release. The Rover premiered at Cannes, and so did Maps to the Stars, a dark comedy about Hollywood directed by David Cronenberg. He's also made Queen of the Desert, a biopic with Werner Herzog, about British traveller, writer and political figure Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman). He's playing her ally T.E. Lawrence - inevitably inviting comparisons with Peter O'Toole.

He's recently been working on Life, an intriguing double portrait of James Dean and Dennis Stock, the Life photographer who took a famous series of portraits of the actor just before he broke through as a star in East of Eden. Pattinson plays Stock, and people assume he was attracted to the part because it is a reflection on celebrity, but he says that's not the case. "A lot of what I was interested in was nothing to do with James Dean, or fame, or anything like that." What drew him to Stock, he says, is that the character is depicted as "a really bad dad. And you don't really see that in young guy parts. He just doesn't love his kid, or is incapable of it, and it kind of pains him."

The film is also about conflicting visions of creativity, he says. "It's a little ego battle, and a lot of it is about professional jealousy, and who's a better artist, who's the subject and who's the artist." Life is directed by Anton Corbijn (Control) who was a photographer before he turned to movie making.

Pattinson says his own opinions on photography are "kind of weird". He's not a fan of digital image-making, he says: he feels it's too easy, that it doesn't require the same level of artistry as analogue photography. And, of course, he adds, experiences with paparazzi haven't helped him appreciate photographers. "I have a very negative attitude towards photographers in a lot of ways, so it's interesting to play one."

In October, he starts work on Idol's Eye, to be directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, making his Hollywood debut. Robert De Niro has just signed on. "I'm really, really excited about this one," Pattinson says. It's a true story about a group of thieves at moments of transition - from the changing face of technology in burglar alarms to the shifting realities for the Chicago Mafia.

He's also starring in an independent post-World War I drama called The Childhood of a Leader due to shoot in September. It will be directed by actor Brady Corbet (Mysterious Skin, Funny Games), from a script he has co-written. "I've known Brady for 10 years, he's great and the script is phenomenal."

Corbet has said he really appreciates the way Pattinson uses his celebrity to help ensure that films he admires get made. Pattinson laughs when I mention this. It's a power he might as well use while he can, he suggests. "We'll see how long it lasts."


Rob, Guy Pearce & David Michôd promoting The Rover at the Sydney Film Festival