Mojave Movie Review: Death and Pretension in the Desert

Despite its talent, Mojave trades on incomprehension as opposed to tension.
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Nothing good ever happens in the desert, or at least that's the ultimate message in director/screenwriter William Monahan's latest film, Mojave. Well-regarded as the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese's gritty crime drama, The Departed, Monahan takes a shot at his own gritty crime drama, eschewing bullets and F-bombs for grand soliloquies about life and a scenery-chewing performance from Oscar Isaac. 

Hollywood screenwriter Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) finds himself disillusioned and adrift. A trip to the Mojave desert is hoped to clear his mind until he meets the mysterious Jack (Isaac), a shiftless drifter with devious intentions. A moment involving murder places Thomas in Jack's crosshairs, leading to a cat and mouse game that goes outside the desert's confines.

Those who know me are aware that, in many instances, Oscar Isaac's mere presence in a film captures my attention, but even he fails to retain my attention throughout Mojave's brief 93-minute runtime.

Immediately giving us characters whose personalities are set in stone is one way of quickly putting a movie on its path, but too often Monahan confuses two-dimensionality with subtlty. He erroneously assumes by keeping these characters enigmas to the audience that we'll care for them because one of them is clearly the hero and the other the villain. The problem lies in the fact both men are fairly awful people, or, in the case of Hedlund's Jack, plain boring. 

Hedlund spends the movie as if he's auditioning for a mumblecore film, speaking all his lines in a hushed grumble with his eyes perpetually stuck in "sleepytime mode." He's the typical Hollywood filmmaker all screenwriters assume they are - gifted and burnt out by Hollywood's falsity, a character so ingrained into Hollywood lore as to be a myth. Outside of that we're told Jack has a wife and child he's avoiding for reasons, probably or not at all related to his ennui, and his French mistress. Even once his life is endangered, there's little suspense or tension short of Hedlund mustering up the strength to look tough and stoic.

Most of the film's praise is going to Oscar Isaac for a performance so hammy and florid it would make Richard Harris blush. A lot of scenery being chewed is what I'm saying. He certainly brings a gravitas to Jack's pretentious speechifying, and when that doesn't work he's fun in crazy mode. But, much like the entire movie itself, Isaac struggles to put the entire movie on his shoulders. The character lives and dies in a vaccuum, like all the others. His character's not necessarily interesting, but the acting keeps you entertained, and when he's gone the life is utterly sapped from the film.

Mark Wahlberg and Walton Goggins appear, predominately because they're friends (in the former) or want to work with Monahan. Both actors give rather flat performances with Goggins looking playing his character in a constant state of exhaustion, it's assumed because of all the legendary shenanigans Hollywood agents get into.

These characters particularly play up the presumed boredom of the Hollywood lifestyle, but there needs to be more than side characters prancing around talking about the dangers of fame and Hollywood. We consume these stories for a reason, yet Monahan, who wants us to consume his tale, tells us how awful it all is. 

Mojave wastes a fantastic leading man with Oscar Isaac but, in doing so, proves the man can pull off and carry the weakest of films. Mired in its own self-indulgence, the film plays like a Hollywood cautionary tale patting itself on the back with its Dashiell Hammet-esque script. The film's worth watching purely for Isaac, as are most movies, but that's it.

Mojave arrives in theaters January 22nd

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