“I’m into motive-less malignity”
I’m not sure what I thought William Monahan‘s Mojave would be, but it definitely wasn’t what followed the tense first fifteen or so minutes spent in the titular desert. We’re thrown into the world he creates to meet a man named Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) speaking philosophically about life and identity via narration as his stern yet lost self leaves a naked woman alone in his bed and ignores the voicemails of who we assume is his family. He’s a mystery—a formidable guy both physically and mentally running away from his Hollywood lifestyle for the solitude and danger of the desert. He screams into the void, egging on coyotes or perhaps God to meet him by his fire and engage in a final showdown. He’s prepared to fight.
So it’s unsurprising that he remains on edge at the sight of another human in the sand. Here’s Jack (Oscar Isaac): a pontificating drifter with a smile unable to hide sociopathic intentions and the confidence to just sit down, call Thomas ‘brother’, and declare himself the Devil. There’s humor in his dialogue, especially where our California lead’s reactions are concerned, but for the most part their exchange and subsequent slow-moving chase is stark suspense thriller ready to blow. It prepares us for an arduous journey of revenge and one-upmanship where two men are fiercely driven to destroy the other rather than survive themselves. That isn’t quite what Monahan delivers, though. It’s instead a tonally out there character study as divisive as The Counselor and almost as oddly eccentric.
Isaac’s hammy performance assists this left-of-center feel as he constantly comments to himself whenever something doesn’t go as planned. To himself more than Thomas: “Are you scared of the rifle? I would be too.” before putting it down. Alone after a car speeds back up upon seeing his hitchhiker on the roadside: “I wouldn’t pick me up either.” His Jack is constantly thinking and scheming—his self-proclaimed high IQ working at a full clip every second of every day despite shabby appearances to ensure he’s always one move ahead of his opponents. So he wears his glee and frustration on his sleeve when victorious or dealt a defeat. We believe in his complexity because he’s an enigma. Thomas should be his equal, but his life makes that hard.
This is where the film kind of lost me because I couldn’t accept Thomas as a badass at home like I did in the desert. Back in Hollywood he’s a famous actor with a volatile temper that works with an intensely stoic agent (a strangely reserved Walton Goggins) and uncouth loudmouth producer (Mark Wahlberg delivering a caricatured cocaine-dealer turned executive as only he can). This world screams spoiled brat and yet somehow Thomas is some genius able to dance with a guy like Jack? It’s hard to buy. We learn nothing about the actor’s past or upbringing, only that he fits most of the Hollywood stereotypes the rags feed us daily. He can quote famous authors and “false reality” is his occupation, but he should be out-of-his-depth regardless.
It’s tough, though. I like how Mojave is slight as far as its conceit goes: two men meet in the desert and exit with a secret that could ruin both. They’re intertwined by this event and decide to run full speed at the other to rectify the situation. They craft lies to place blame on the other and relish their ability to make the other squirm enough to double back and reconsider their trajectory. We don’t need more than this on paper, but we do when one is made the exact opposite of what a lunatic on the edge with homicidal tendencies needed. Don’t show Thomas’ life or at least don’t make it so extravagant. It’s distracting and renders Hedlund’s character a boy pretending opposite Isaac’s pure evil.
I never once felt scared for Thomas because he’s been manufactured as pure white hat despite his proclivities. He may not be a “good” person, but he’s definitely not ready for the war of attrition putting himself on Jack’s radar supplies. All the suspense from the beginning therefore washes away. The end becomes inevitable and the journey there merely an enjoyable ride to oblivion with some worthwhile laughs. Isaac and Hedlund are both great in their respective roles and I was immensely entertained whenever they are pitted against the other for long stretches of conversation. Give me 90-minutes of these two verbally sparring with a gun between them and you may have a real winner on your hands rather than the promising if disappointing work Mojave proves.
Thankfully its oddities don’t distract from the fun because it’s that if nothing else. I could have cared less about anyone other than Thomas and Jack, but Wahlberg and Goggins do entertain. Louise Bourgoin‘s Milly is wasted eye-candy and a contrived excuse for Thomas’ malaise, Dania Ramirez and Sterling K. Brown‘s detectives could have been removed since they pose no danger, and I was glad to see Fran Kranz on the big screen: they’re background dressing for Thomas and Jack’s escalating encounters. While okay, I’m a lot more invested if you remove a couple to spend time explaining why Thomas is capable of scaring Jack despite a charmed life devoid of struggles outside “first world problems”. Isaac and Hedlund’s tête-à-têtes are classic, but I needed more.
courtesy of A24