I'll say this much for Mojave: it lets you know precisely how insufferably pretentious it's going to be within the first few minutes. Our two main characters – a pair of scruffy-looking men played by Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) and Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina) - have stumbled across each other in the middle of the Mojave Desert. They sit down across from each other at a campfire. “Who are you?” Isaac says. “The Greek question, the essential one.” He then proceeds to launch directly into a monologue that touches on T.E. Lawrence, Jesus' encounter with Satan in the desert, and the existential crisis at the core of Hamlet: “It always comes down to that, doesn't it? To be or not to be.”
Mojave is very much a dorm room imitation of a Cormac McCarthy movie; a “thriller” in which the characters spend most of their time engaging in long-winded, over-written debates about Important Things. That sort of thing only works when the writer is good enough to make you forgive the fact that people don't actually talk to each other this way. McCarthy can do it (I'll even stick up for the much-maligned The Counselor). David Mamet can, too. Unfortunately, writer/director William Monahan cannot.
Monahan began his screenwriting career on a promising note, penning Ridley Scott's morally complex Kingdom of Heaven and Martin Scorsese's thoroughly entertaining The Departed. However, as time has passed, his work has grown progressively less interesting and more self-indulgent. His previous low was his script for Rupert Wyatt's remake of The Gambler, which took a potentially gripping story and buried it under tiresome macho posturing and scenes in which Mark Wahlberg rambled about the Great Man theory. Mojave is considerably worse, and finds the worst aspects of Monahan's writing reaching full bloom.
The plot is a contrived scenario designed to place two tough men in deadly conflict with each other. Hedlund plays Tom, a troubled artist who wanders off into the desert to find a bit of mental clarity. The exact nature of his profession is unclear, but we learn that he's very rich and very successful. Eventually, he bumps into Jack (Isaac), a drifter with homicidal tendencies. The two share the aforementioned campfire conversation, then get into a fight. Tom knocks Jack unconscious and flees. Later, Jack witnesses Tom accidentally shoot a police officer. When he finds out that Jack is rich and famous, he realizes that he may have some valuable leverage.
Naturally, the film works its way to more long conversations between Tom and Jack, as they engage in some intellectual dick-measuring (“I'm a member of the 99%... only financially, of course,” Isaac says, going on to drop some more literary references and boast about his I.Q.), point knives and guns at each other and grapple with questions of morality. To say that the writing lacks subtlety would be an understatement. Early in the film, Isaac is wearing black and Hedlund is wearing white. Later, the colors are reversed. As if the idea isn't obvious enough, Isaac says, “Have you figured out which one of us is the bad guy yet?”
Isaac – sporting a couple of gold teeth and making endless use of the word “brother” - gets to deal with a pretty significant chunk of the film's terrible dialogue, which is probably for the best since he delivers the film's best performance. He's consistently the most interesting thing in the movie, bringing a sense of playful danger to his character and occasionally finding a way to give the dialogue a bit of rhythm. Hedlund is far less interesting, muttering his way through his part (and often sounding like a dead ringer for Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and serving up the same one-note sulkiness from start to finish. The film's most entertaining scene is a throwaway bit in which Jack cheerfully mimics Tom's surly voice.
Like pretty much all of Monahan's work, this is a very masculine film, filled with imagery that often feels ripped from the pages of a men's magazine: Jeeps plowing across rugged terrain, scraggly beards, sunglasses, women in bikinis (or women wearing nothing at all), leather and weapons. The film's only significant female character is Tom's mistress Milly (Louise Bourgoin, The Girl from Monaco), who only exists to be used as a prop in the increasingly violent conflict between the two men. There are also cameo roles for Mark Wahlberg and Walton Goggins, who share a dialogue exchange that perfectly summarizes the film's eyeroll-worthy tone:
Wahlberg: “You know how to get out of here, right? Take a left and then go f--- yourself.”
Goggins: “Whether we go right or left... we're all f---ed.”
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 2016