by Philip Price
Knowing nothing about it, the plot, or its characters “Mojave” begins and quickly takes on a sense of aimlessness. Like its Hollywood wasteland setting, the hopes and dreams of whatever writer/director William Monahan (Oscar winning writer of “The Departed”) aspired for this to be seems to get lost in the shuffle of the day-to-day, and the existing lives that thrive purely on indulgence and artificial and material accomplishments that never get around to tapping into their true desires. “Mojave,” while constantly striving to be more, ends up doing little more than wasting away and ultimately wasting our time. More than feeling like wasted time though, “Mojave” feels like a missed opportunity due simply to the talent involved. Not only do we have the on-fire Oscar Isaac and the legitimately talented Garrett Hedlund for Isaac to both verbally and physically spar with, but we also have the likes of Walton Goggins and Mark Wahlberg in supporting roles. I won't even harp on the fact Monahan has charismatic folks like Dania Ramirez, Matt Jones and Fran Kranz in minor supporting roles that he only utilizes for single scenes, but even the likes of Goggins is criminally underused in that a talent of his stature wasn't necessary for his six lines of dialogue. Sure, “Mojave” has some interesting things going for it as Monahan is a capable writer and pens some interesting back and forth about the measure of success and how it affects the narrative of one's life, but in the end none of it means anything. For all the flowery language and high-brow quotes our two leads pull out of their asses there is no substance in their actions, which I guess is the kind of demons they are attempting to chase away in the first place. How can their lives symbolize their deepest desires and greatest ambitions rather than simply being an on-going conversation about those dreams and desires? Bleak, no doubt, but that seems the writer/director’s desired tone, which in turn causes his movie to drag.
All of that said, “Mojave” isn't actively bad, but it does have a weird sense of camp to it that would seem intentional if it wasn't trying so hard to impress with its language. Instead, whatever the intent, it comes off as a self-serious thriller that inadvertently becomes campy due to playing into so many tropes of the genre. First, we are introduced to Hedlund's Thomas through what is a taped interview as he mumbles on about how he's been famous in one way or another since he was 19 and that he's already tired of life having received all he wanted so early. Of course, this is all ominous as we are then treated to Thomas taking a vehicle into the desert with the intention of doing away with himself. He crashes his car with the somewhat tepid hope that it might finish him, but when it doesn't he makes a fire and spends the night in the middle of the Mojave yelling at the coyotes to come and get him. The coyotes never show, but something else does that will alter the course of Thomas' life in Isaac's Jack. Even in his initial appearance, Isaac seems to know he shouldn't be conveying his character in as humorless a fashion as Hedlund has chosen to do with his. Dressed in a black duster stained by his surroundings and some version of a fedora with a rifle on his hip and a gold tooth in his mouth, Isaac's drifter has to say very little to give us an impression of who this guy might be. That Isaac actually imbues a performance under this facade only makes the character more interesting and kind of fun, but one that is ultimately undone by his annoyingly over-usage of "brother". If the guy says it once he definitely says it a million times to the point it doesn't just become a part of this individual’s unique vernacular, but is repeated often enough to make a drinking game from while opening up the remainder of the dialogue to higher scrutiny. From here, some irreversible stuff happens between these two leading to an extended conflict once Thomas attempts to return to his lavish lifestyle in the Hollywood hills.
Where the movie succeeds is in its offering of the matching of its two leading minds. Each represent either end of a modern spectrum; Thomas with his privileged lifestyle trying to find some reason to go on while Jack with his unfulfilled destiny despite having a belief in his ideas that he feels no one else has ever seen. It is the battle of those who are born into advantage and those always battling the inherent disadvantages of our society. The majority of viewers will likely view this world from the perspective of Isaac's Jack who takes this opportunity to finally stick it to the man very seriously and thus all the more fulfilling to those who've ever faced defeated dreams. Despite Isaac giving the more charismatic performance and audiences likely relating to his plight more, we are never privy to which of these guys is "supposed" to be the good guy. Isaac's character even acknowledges as much at one point in the film in a scene that feels more climactic than the actual climax. We may not ultimately agree with Jack's actions, but we understand where he's coming from and this gray area is what makes the characters both engaging, more layered, and more authentic. That the main throughline of the plot is for Thomas to essentially frame Jack for a crime he committed and let this life less worthy than his (based simply on notoriety) take the blame while he continues to prosper speaks to a line of thought that is shared by many in this world. The main idea is there, as are these solid performances from both Isaac and Hedlund (though a scene where Isaac openly mocks Hedlund's somber veneer while still adding in, "brother," is particularly amusing), but it is the execution that simply feels stale. There is an aura that is so familiar to the proceedings that it complements the LA wasteland setting too well. We've seen this cautionary tale before, where you can trust no one in the industry and only those already in the inner circle are the ones allowed in the inner circle. What hope do us sad dreamers actually have? While Isaac's Jack is intent to create his own opportunity, Monahan's conclusion lets us know where the writer/director comes down on things despite being comfortably nestled into the scene enough that he can write, direct, and get such dismal material as this produced.
Where the movie largely fails is both in the confused tones and mismatched genres generated by the script and the inability to mold said script into anything appealing. How Monahan was able to attract such talent to the film seems simply due to the fact he must be friends with most of these people. Both Hedlund and Isaac are clearly capable talents that have expressed huge range given their filmographies, but that talent is put to the test here by a script that goes nowhere and characters that ultimately are as haphazard as the screenplay. As an audience member, we only become invested in these loose circumstances because of the commitment of the performances on display, but that doesn't even mean we necessarily like the characters. As the film opens we wonder who Hedlund's character is given he's apparently been famous for more than a decade and what he might be doing venturing into the desert and sleeping with women who clearly aren't his wife (a wife that is trying to get a hold of him via phone calls he isn't answering). The movie never clarifies what kind of artist Thomas is, but we assume he's some type of filmmaker given he is forced, but doesn't like to deal with, stereotypical producer Norman (Wahlberg) throughout. There is no reason as to why we might sympathize with this guy, much less be interested in following him, but then Isaac's character shows up talking more than the talkers he initially complains about and the pace changes from that of a pointless to a familiar one as its quite clear how things are going to play out in the broad sense. There are maybe one or two scenes that are truly effective given the writing, directing and acting each overlap in a way that makes you wonder where the good movie within this mess has wandered off to, but that quick optimism is cut off by the next scene where one of the many characters is laying around in their underwear spouting off philosophical sayings that are meant to foreshadow the conflict to come (This happens. A lot). “Mojave” is a trite thriller masquerading as a provocative think piece that bears its true self far too early for anyone to ever fall for its trap.