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.

Cosmopolis image via eOne Films

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 won't believe it's the same guy whose range once peaked with this:

“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.

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

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