The Western, that cinematic bastion of manifest destiny, was in its early years an ongoing story of imposing "civilization" (and all the racist connotations that accompany the concept) on a lawless West, where native nations and cattle ranchers were equally hostile forces. The landscape itself—with its sentinel mountains whose shadows fell across the desert sands, its limitless horizons dotted with scrub—was a metaphor for the wild, the barren, the hostile life. It required hard work from those who would live there; it killed those who weren't worthy; sometimes, worst of all, it was a traitor that provided hiding places to the enemy. But in those early years it was a land of possibility, just waiting to be made into a home by the stars of that year's RKO epic, and any man brave enough would live a hero or die a legend. Whether the good man was lawful was supposed to matter, but any Shane who lived by his own principles was often close enough. It was a narrative in which every Dodge City (which "knew no ethics but cash and killing") represented a chance to impose order, hinting at a world that was soon to come: Westerns offered a comforting revisionist mythos and the promise of tomorrow.
Of course, it was the promise of a tomorrow that had already come and gone, a revisionist history that was already swallowing itself, because at heart the Western has always harbored a cynical core that it takes no great pains to conceal. Amid the Rio Grandes, in which John Wayne saves a cartload of kids from the Apache nation he's been sent to subdue, there's a Fort Apache, in which John Wayne is forced to parrot a patriotic party line to bury the truth about American treatment of Cochise. The Searchers tackled head-on the Western-movie conception of Native American nations as "savages" who require civilizing, and the nature of obsessive hate. Silverado, for all its loving homage (the goodhearted lawman with the city behind him, the agent of chaos with the empty horizon at his back), acknowledges that, when stripped of transportation, your situation is awfully dire. And for every sweeping shot of the verdant Mississippi valley or the soaring Wyoming skies, there's the knowledge that underscores so many plots in the traditional Western: to be in this landscape alone, without a plan or without friends, was to risk death at its hands. The wild, the barren, and the hostile world doesn't care how much heart you carry with you; the opening shots of vast Wyoming scrub ringed by mountains are there to remind you that Shane bleeds out in them there hills.
It's no surprise that, as that cynicism becomes increasingly common in the cinematic vocabulary, the Western has turned in recent years to an overt study of these unsettling underpinnings; Geronimo: An American Legend directly addressed the nature of the "Indian campaigns," and films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford present landscapes as both breathtakingly lovely and as foreign ground from which there's no respite and no escape. It's no surprise that the visual and thematic sensibility of the Western has become so effective as the setting for the apocalypse, where the hostile geography is one not of exploration but of scarcity, and lawlessness isn't waiting for a hero, it's just marking decay.
Giving in to this nihilism doesn't always mean the full Mad Max; sometimes the end of the world comes not with a bang, but a whimper. Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man is an examination of several Western tropes as its hero, accountant William Blake, wanders through a series of surreal encounters (some poignant, others quietly baffling), an unhurried to-the-death quest narrative playing out over his slow, painful demise—the unspoken mirror of what happened to Shane on the far side of those mountains. In Dead Man, the world ends slowly, in ways even the usual trigger-happy Western black hats can't really touch; they, too, succumb to a world that doesn't much want them in it. For Blake and friends, death is the only frontier.
But the apocalyptic undertones of Dead Man aren't primarily communicated through geographic obstacles: their landscape is suitably scraggly, but it's not nearly the bleakness of open desert; it's not exposure that threatens William Blake. Instead, the breakdown of civilization happens narratively: the more the internal logic of the story breaks down, the more surreal the imagery, the greater the misrule, the danger, and the wild. (A dead deer in the wilderness is nothing of note; the hallucinations that bracket it are what make it stand out as a thing that's somehow wrong.) The landscape of the Western merely strips away the visual noise of civilization, creating a backdrop of the natural from which the unnatural, and the downfalls it suggests, can play out with even greater impact.
Alex Cox used similar thematic dovetailing in Straight to Hell, an anarchic nod to the spaghetti western in which black-suited bank robbers flee to a town run by a coffee-addicted gang who enjoy music, killing strangers, and lack of narrative cohesion. The town is the only respite from a desert that itself feels murderously empty; anything coming out of it is bad news for the town. But from the beginning, the robbers' greatest enemy is the causal that free-for-all trails behind them (ticking down every morning until the subtitles warn us of the Final Day). A hot dog vendor becomes the town bard; two characters manage a torrid love affair with slapstick discretion; gang members pause in a shootout to grab an espresso from the dust; Grace Jones comes to town to sow firearms so her husband can drill for oil when the city's murdered itself. With few explanations and fewer consequences, this buildup of darkly comic nightmare logic feels like the world's ended from the moment the foursome staggers into the local bar, covered in dust, where the jukebox has died and the nearby hotel is a husk. The desert is less a challenge than a warning; it's the landscape of knowing you're doomed.
The Rover is, by virtue of being set in Australia, situated in a favored landscape for both the modern-day Western and the modern apocalypse; its stunning horizon often indicates the hundreds of miles between cities, and implies both scarcity of resources and a scarcity of observation; if you lose your mode of transit in The Rover, you'd better be resigned to dying, because no one is coming to save you. It's a landscape that by default has been stolen by the "civilizers" from the indigenous people displaced by an empire's manifest destiny, but who have all but vanished from the concerns of what remains of civilization. (The two aboriginal characters who appear are both silent, and their lifespans brief.) And amid this traditionally Western setting, the facts of gradual apocalypse are everywhere in details: grocery stores with armed guards, petrol sold behind bulletproof glass. The rover (Guy Pearce) spends the movie on a single-minded quest to get his car back. But the apocalypse is more tensely highlighted by the same surreal sensibility as Dead Man and Straight to Hell. A conversation with a madam at a makeshift roadside brothel has so many theme-heavy snarls it's an interrogation lifted out of a Greek myth, and transactions are in American cash money only, despite everyone acknowledging that it's worthless. Sidekick-by-happenstance Rey (Robert Pattinson) in particular plays into this low-level narrative displacement. Scenes shot from his point of view have a nightmarish immediacy missing from the rover, whose view is so detached it seems at first to be omniscient; Rey has more hope than is good for him. (A scene that's quickly becoming the film's most iconically surreal shows Rey sitting in a vehicle loading up his gun for the morning's violence, singing along to Keri Hilson's "Pretty Girl Rock"; it's as striking for the fact that there are still radio stations as for the juxtaposition of situation and accompaniment.)
But Rey's most personal moment, his most long-considered concern, is a lingering fascination with a former neighbor whose hoarded collections were themselves nonsensical. The list of objects takes on a jarring domesticity given that Rey's only confessor is openly planning to kill him—it's a story of what people held onto relentlessly even into death, and one that has no consequences for either of them now. (Guy Pearce, in perhaps the best moment of a masterful performance, allows the rover a flicker of recognition—he sees the parallels that Rey doesn't, in a moment of lucidity that reminds the viewer how horribly sane he is in a world that's falling apart.) It's a bonfire story told as they're on the run from the last of the lawmen, who eventually catch the rover and begin paperwork they admit will probably come to nothing. The rover seems oddly content in the hands of what passes for law-and-order civilization (and thus, the capacity to judge him and restore a balance of right and wrong)—his great burden is a crime he committed for which there were no consequences. He's rescued by Rey, because the law falls apart as much as anything else, and once free, he returns to his gun and his goal, preparing for a showdown he knows will mean nothing. But it lacks the purpose he evidenced before; in being robbed of forced atonement, the world's ended all over again.
The flat dust plains that are the only view from the rover's car windows evoke, presumably with intent, the scrub country against which the classic Western has played out dozens of times. However, in the surreal frame of The Rover, it happens in reverse: he's the agent of chaos, not of order, and leaves every place he visits worse off than before, on his way to a death in this landscape that's only a matter of time. It's a chilling inverse of the familiar tropes, but a pitch-perfect acknowledgment of the Western as apocalypse: no ethics but cash or killing.