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Beware Strangers Bearing Literary Quotes

In Mojave, an effective thriller struggles under the weight of its intellectual pretensions.


Mojave

Director: William Monahan
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Oscar Isaac, Mark Wahlberg, Louise Bourgoin, Walton Goggins
Length: 93 Minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Year: 2015
US Release Date: 2016-01-22 (Limited Release)

Rediscovering yourself in the desert is a time honoured tradition. That certainly seems to be Thomas’ purpose, a rich successful director who wanders out in search of something. He comes across a personal revelation or two, but his real discovery in the Mojave is death, masquerading as Oscar Isaac in post-apocalyptic get-up. William Monahan’s second film as director (he also writes and produces) brings an A-list cast together for intellectual musings and dark suspense, building and squandering a solid base along the way.

Mojave begins with desolate images of moneyed squalor. Thomas, played with catatonic cool by Garrett Hedlund, then walks out of his cold LA life and drives off in a jeep for sandy adventures. Lost in the wilderness after crashing the vehicle and raging at the dying light, he finds a shadowy figure approaching. It’s Isaac as Jack, a gravel-toned lover of literature, keen to discuss Shakespeare, Melville and the devil.

Unable to hide bad intentions, a scuffle follows in which Thomas triumphs, making off with the other man’s rifle. An unsettling number of notches on the butt of his gun hint at the bad times to come.

A brief pursuit out in the Mojave takes place, ending in a tragic accident, or a violent mistake, depending on one's perspective. From there it’s back to civilisation, where Thomas gets to hint enigmatically about his recent behaviour while Jack, now shaven headed and suavely attired, turns up to seek money, revenge and general mischief. Thus, Monahan has his set-up, simple and effective if handled right, disappointing if over-garnished as it is here.

Things go wrong right from the beginning, starting with Thomas. He’s such a picture of Hollywood chic he ends up turning into a hipster star caricature. With long hair, designer stubble and shades, he tries far too hard to be the mysterious artist. No amount of liquor swigging, cigarette smoking, knife waving, gun toting madness can add any credibility to this translucent figure.

It’s odd to see Monahan, primarily a screenwriter, and an Oscar winning one at that (for The Departed), stumble so badly with his lead. It’s not the last misstep, either.

All the characters suffer in a similar way. Isaac, overly fond of calling everyone "brother" and geeing himself up with the words “game on” when no one’s listening, is an interesting villain only from a distance. Get up close and there’s no shape to his evil. He’s convinced of his own intelligence, John Stuart Mill levels on his telling, and seems fatalistically cynical about life, a trait shared with his adversary.

Except that’s all there is to see. Indeed, he resembles a liberal arts student regurgitating the first two weeks of readings, convinced he knows what it all means. It’s made worse in conversation with Thomas, a character prone to the same tendencies. At one stage there's even an effort to out-quote each other.

Elsewhere, Mark Wahlberg pops up in a few scenes, as Thomas’ chaotic drunken, foul-mouthed producer Norman, usually in a dressing gown surrounded by prostitutes. He allows for a few nods to the filmmaking process that never really go anywhere. There’s further half-hearted dissection of stardom from Milly (Louise Bourgoin), Thomas’ leading lady and lover who seems to dislike him even as she carries on sleeping with him.

Only Walton Goggins, always dependable, gets away unscathed, and possibly because he’s seen rarely. A shady legal fixer, he keeps emotion from his face whether discussing Thomas’ predicament or dealing with Norman’s abuse.

It’s an undeniably talented cast going to waste. Even Isaac, having graduated recently to roguish leading man, can’t do much more than wrestle Jack into a passable state. In character-driven psychological drama, it doesn’t help when everyone is a blandly dislikeable asshole. The only real difference between any of them is the level of dirt and grime attached to each person.

Constant intellectual posturing and artistic moaning makes everyone a drag. Then, when Monahan does find an interesting idea, he fails to exploit it. A brief reconnoitre into the realm of storytelling sees Thomas and Jack ponder different scenarios in which one wins and the other loses. This potentially rich seam, the extent to which we can spin our own personal narratives, remains otherwise untapped, confined primarily to a macho bar conversation in which each man tries to best his testosterone-ridden counterpart.

Not everything falls flat, making the disappointing extras all the more disappointing. Underneath needlessly portentous lines and faux intellectualism, there’s a reasonably effective thriller at work. In its rawest moments, Mojave conjures up visceral tension as the leading men lock horns. First in the desert, where there’s too much messy lens flare, and then back in creepily empty LA, their dangerous game of cat and mouse turns scary fast, holding the moment as long as no one speaks. Then of course they do, puncturing silence with another bout of literary bragging.

A distinct smell of wasted potential hangs heavily in the air as the plot plods towards a conclusion that mixes the very best and worse Monahan has to offer. With the talent involved, Mojave should be a lot better. Perhaps it could have done with a bout of desert soul-searching itself.

5
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