Mojave: Mojave Boulevard, by Alexander Miller
Like many, I subscribe to the auteur theory but there are some actors out there who have the lure to pull me into a film without any knowledge of its writer or director. Oscar Isaac is one of those names that has that power; despite Isaac, Walton Goggins and a glorified cameo from Mark Wahlberg (playing more or less himself), Mojave fails to achieve its mission statement, which seems unclear to begin with because the film doesn’t feel like writer-director Monahan had one.
With credits including Kingdom of Heaven, The Departed and Body of Lies, you’d think that Mojave would have some cohesion but it doesn’t. Garrett Hedlund plays Thomas, a brooding artist/filmmaker who takes to the titular desert for seclusion in the throes of an emotional crisis. He’s a handsome loner with fame, fortune and celebrity clout to boot, did I mention he looks like a cross between Johnny Depp and Kurt Cobain, I know, the world is so unfair. Misanthropic outsiders usually engender some charm, but Hedlund feels like a brat. Once he flips his car and heckles some coyotes, he hunkers down by a campfire for some more brooding that’s interrupted by a like-minded but sinister drifter. Enter Jack (Oscar Isaac), a rifle packing wanderer who looks like he just wandered from the set of a Richard Stanley movie with an accent that sounds like the hipster offspring of Karl Childers from Sling Blade. Jack and Thomas engage in a battle of wits, and as we can expect, this kicks off the tension and ensuing conflict between these two alpha males. Thomas is the hot blonde guy, and Jack is the stranger with a gravelly accent, ergo he’s the villain right?
We can accept formulaic structure to a degree; coming from a screenwriter first and director second, I can understand setting up characters as a narrative accelerant but this concept is hard to abide by with insipid subjects and obscure motivations.
Once things get physical, Thomas disarms Jack of his Winchester and the drifter is thwarted; so much for making friends. In the fallout of their brief encounter a predator-prey relationship begins and the stakes are raised when Thomas shoots a ranger who he has mistaken as Jack. An accidental murder intended as self-defense, a deranged witness with a chip on his shoulder and neither party can go to the police; sounds like a solid blueprint for a great neo-noir story right? While this might look great on paper Monahan fails to communicate any tension, or generate a granule of interest.
Faustian themes are ever present and there’s connective to Hitchcock and noir classics like Detour, The Hitchhiker and Strangers on a Train. But Mojave dissolves to a certain degree, thus revealing that connective tissue was no more than a flimsy Band-Aid. Once peeled off it registers Monahan’s cluttered vision merely apes the aesthetics of previously mentioned filmic superlatives without the substance or even justification to make such analogies.
Usually, the appearance of Walton Goggins is an exciting prospect in any film but his atonal role as Thomas’ lawyer strains the energy and charisma from this otherwise compelling actor whose presence does little more than say “Hey, we’ve got Walton Goggins”.
Following in suit is the shoehorned role for Mark Wahlberg, who’s playing the typical loud-mouthed producer persona. His mansion is populated with prostitutes and littered with Champagne bottles; heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Wahlberg’s dialogue sounds like he’s rattling lines omitted from The Departed (or the Entourage movie); perhaps he’s just Wahlberging it up. After all, he yells something about owning a lot of clam shacks in Harwich Port (Hah-which) from his balcony; I did mention that he seems to be playing himself, right? Despite this “comic” relief, Wahlberg’s presence is nothing more than supplementary name recognition and a tally for the body count. Thanks Marky!
This contentious attitude towards Hollywood feels misguided and a bit puzzling; is Monahan playfully jabbing a system he belongs to or is he trying to be the subversive “cool” guy? When Mojave concentrates on its lead characters there’s some semblance of a substantial movie; Isaac and Hedlund have some chemistry and the scenes they share resonate and could have been the backbone to a heady and taught thriller had it stayed on track. But the referential in-jokes and inconsequential subplots just sidetrack the viewer from the very thin and uninvolving plotline. Clumsiness on this level exhibits a stuttering director whose grasp exceeds their reach. Mojave suffers from many afflictions, foremost being an identity crisis.
The first act hints at a psychologically sophisticated reflection on the duality of man but backslides into a second rate Hollywood-noir at best.
Oscar Isaac has the high cards in this show and even that gets played out when his snarkily delivered social commentaries go on too long to retain the charm that won us over in the first act. After a haircut and a shave (in his new digs at the expense of a conveniently stupid producer that Jack murders) he goes into Max Candy territory as his obsession with Thomas grows. Jack continues to stalk his prey, either driven by scorn at having the same intellectual skill set as his counterpart, or just good old fashioned sociopathy? Regardless, Jack harasses Thomas’ side girlfriend (did I mention his lack of appeal?), skulks around his neighborhood, and eventually the two drift into orbit in an underwhelming finale that resolves little to nothing.
Mojave feels like a case of a screenwriter getting a chance to direct on the good faith generated from his earlier work. Mojave’s dialogue has sporadically favorable moments, but more often than not the syntax seems to be over or underwritten. One scene has the two leads quoting Shakespeare only to be flattened with lumbering verbal exchanges where every sentence (or sentence fragment) is phrased as a question followed by an empty gaze. Oscar Isaac’s sneering villainy makes proper use of the word “brother”, aside from this minor accentuation, there aren’t too many memorable lines to recall unless you like Wahlberg acting like a rambunctious jerk. Dialogue, characters, and overall structure are problematic throughout, I can’t calculate how many times “Oscar-winning writer and director?” ran through my head.
Having said that, Don Davis’ cinematography is nice to look at; Mojave is for Oscar Isaac devotees and people with little to do.