Reviews

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
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Music

Inventions' 'Continuous Portrait' Blurs the Grandiose and the Intimate

Explosions in the Sky and Eluvium side project, Inventions are best when they are navigating the distinction between modes in real-time on Continuous Portrait.

Music

Willie Jones Blends Country-Trap With Classic Banjo-Picking on "Trainwreck" (premiere)

Country artist Willie Jones' "Trainwreck" is an accessible summertime breakup tune that coolly meshes elements of the genre's past, present, and future.

Music

2011's 'A Different Compilation' and 2014 Album 'The Way' Are a Fitting Full Stop to Buzzcocks Past

In the conclusion of our survey of the post-reformation career of Buzzcocks, PopMatters looks at the final two discs of Cherry Red Records' comprehensive retrospective box-set.

Music

Elysia Crampton Creates an Unsettlingly Immersive Experience with ​'Ocorara 2010'

On Ocorara 2010, producer Elysia Crampton blends deeply meditative drones with "misreadings" of Latinx poets such as Jaime Saenz and Juan Roman Jimenez

Music

Indie Folk's Mt. Joy Believe That Love Will 'Rearrange Us'

Through vibrant imagery and inventive musicality, Rearrange Us showcases Americana band Mt. Joy's growth as individuals and musicians.

Music

"Without Us? There's No Music": An Interview With Raul Midón

Raul Midón discusses the fate of the art in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. "This is going to shake things up in ways that could be very positive. Especially for artists," he says.

Music

The Fall Go Transatlantic with 'Reformation! Post-TLC'

The Fall's Reformation! Post-TLC, originally released in 2007, teams Mark E. Smith with an almost all-American band, who he subsequently fired after a few months, leaving just one record and a few questions behind.

Film

Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.

Film

The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.