There is metaphysical wonderment to the image of a figure traversing the desert. Removed from not only the realm of man, but also far apart from the beasts too, he’s dared to enter the province of the celestial. Hence why such biblical connotations are eagerly embraced by William Monahan’s Mojave, a thriller of fabulist intent for which all references are readily name dropped, be they Christ or T.E. Lawrence. Every assorted literary figure that likely once haunted the writer-director echoes through a film ostensibly about two guys on a collision course—despite all the elbowroom of southeastern California between them. This pretext makes their need to clash all the more enjoyably absurd.
As a twisted ride about two malcontent narcissists of different stripes, Mojave makes for an entertaining, if sometimes messy and indulgent, chase across the sand-strewn landscape since the audience quickly understands that two sides of Monahan’s muse are battling for dominance across the screen. And it’s a feat that miraculously avoids too much pretension mostly due to Oscar Isaac, who devour every square inch of the dusty panorama within eye-line.
The film opens with Thomas (Garrett Hedlund), a writer and director of such satisfied confidence that he is already penning his own legend via homemade videos dedicated to his genius from a Beverley Hills palace. Yet while Thomas references a number of influences, including George Bernard Shaw, the unmentioned elephant hunter in the room is Ernest Hemingway. Following in that scribe’s desire to prove the unquestionable masculinity of the creative arts, Thomas is thus someone who needs to justify for posterity why he often flees the sycophancy of Hollywood for a desert sanctuary that tests his bravado with a vast terrain.
But when his latest pilgrimage into the wilderness includes an unexpected car crash, Thomas is stranded for a days-long hike. And it is on one of these nights that Jack (Isaac) manifests from the shadows to share a cup of coffee by Thomas’ fire. Isaac’s stranger also brings with him a rifle and wild ideas about Christ and the Devil, Hamlet, Herman Melville, and how drifters can take lives easier than a Danish prince. After all, like the Bard, Jack loves “motiveless malignity.”
Thomas quickly escapes this stranger’s encounter at knife point, but soon finds himself being tracked the next day by a figure in the distance, and one that, like all of Thomas’ worst sins, comes back with him to Hollywood.
Mojave attempts to operate as a dark comedy about the soullessness of the moviemaking industry and as a simultaneous cinematic yarn about a vengeful desert phantom seeking Thomas’ soul. The latter is more successful, not least of all because Thomas is quite deserving of the attention after he commits a multitude of abominable acts to keep Jack a breath away; Monahan would even seem to indict the whole industry as worthy of Jack paying a visit. In this vein, Mojave playfully maintains its sense of humor with Hollywood’s favorite pastime of navel-gazing, particularly during its running gag about Thomas’ producing partner being of typical Tinsletown vanity with his money, hookers, and cocaine—it’s a part that a very game Mark Wahlberg chews with glee.
But the caricatures of Hollywood are often drawn so broadly that these sequences approach more camp than insight. It’s the battle of wills between two figures of immense bombast that steers Mojave toward a more palpable oasis. During these sequences, it’s a cat and mouse game between guys with a Jacksonian level of belief in their own manifest destinies. Sure, one might be an insulated filmmaker of undeniable pretension, and the other is a failed artiste sociopath who has abandoned previous attempts at penmanship for compositions made exclusively of corpses, but both are convinced in their own magnificence. It’s even easy to imagine that this entire conflict could be avoided if one would just acknowledge a fellow contemporary.
In these dueling roles, Hedlund is a wide-eyed, latter-day SoCal John Ford. It’s a barrel-chested performance that swings perhaps a little too big and is often overcompensating when competing against Isaac’s unhinged majesty. Still, in those moments he is able to hold his own against a barely recognizable costar in sandy vagabond attire. Honestly, this is a bigger feat than you might realize since Isaac literally possesses the screen as Monahan’s not-so-subtle demon, delivering one English dissertation of dialogue at a time.
And it’s in this context that Monahan works through some bad creative mojo of his own. Obviously the devil over an artist’s shoulder, Jack is there to mock and deconstruct Thomas’ cushy lifestyle, challenging him to be the kind of rugged individualist that the rest of a cosmopolitan and international Hollywood has forgotten.
It’s a film that is quite intentionally at war with itself, and Mojave leaves some bodies on the floor, but it also is every bit as operatic and enjoyable as its heart-on-its-sleeve allusions, especially when a beastly Isaac is locking words and literary one-upmanship with his foe. For that reason, Mojave is mostly worthy trek into a gnarly patch of wilderness.
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