You know when you’re trying to say something, but can’t find the words? That’s a bit like what William Monahan’s Mojave feels like. It almost gets there, but can’t quite spit it out and that makes it more of a fleeting thrill than something you can really chew on after it wraps up.
Garrett Hedlund leads as Tom, a guy who hit it big in Hollywood and has been famous since he was 19. However, now he’s busy asking himself, “When you get what you want, what do you want?” Desperate for some stimulation, he goes off the radar and heads out into the Mojave Desert. One night he’s approached by a dubious looking drifter (Oscar Isaac), a scuffle ensues and, ultimately, Tom winds up shooting an innocent man by mistake while the drifter watches safely from a distance.
Mojave is an odd mix of semi-noir crime thriller, western and Hollywood satire. One moment, the movie is beautifully bizarre, showing off two fascinating self-destructive characters in the midst of an intense standoff of wits, words and firepower, but the next, the film is laden with tiresome speeches and genre cliches.
Tom’s a cookie cutter entitled Hollywood star. He’s gorgeous and knows it, has a seemingly bottomless bank account and does whatever he pleases. It’d be one thing if Tom realized all of this and wanted to make a turnaround, but he doesn’t. It’s like he just goes out to the desert for kicks and intends on coming back the same person, and his nonstop selfish, reckless behavior makes him hard to connect to or care about. Isaac’s Jack certainly isn’t a good guy either, but he’s monumentally more fun to watch.
Whereas Hedlund spends most of the movie playing defense with a sad sap look on his face, Isaac’s character exudes energy and purpose. Who knows why Jack does what he does, but it sure is fascinating to watch him to do it. He’s got a theatrical quality to him that makes him endlessly entertaining, but Isaac also still sells him as a very capable guy who poses a serious threat.
After their encounter in the desert, Jack follows Tom back to Hollywood, stalks him and prepares to make his move. Why? To get Tom back for trying to frame him for the murder of that innocent man? To teach the Hollywood snob a lesson? Perhaps the contrast between Tom and Jack is just Monahan’s way of poking fun at the Hollywood lifestyle, but as far as the characters go, who really knows what either of them want out of all of this? And that’s Mojave’s biggest pitfall. The characters don’t seem to have any goals. In fact, at one point, Jack even professes, “I’m into motiveless malignity. I’m a Shakespeare man.” There’s enough suspense and momentum to Jack and Tom’s back and forth to keep Mojave entertaining from start to finish, but when their story wraps up, you’re essentially left with nothing because who knows what either of them gain from all of this.
As for Monahan’s supporting roster, the only standout is Mark Wahlberg because he’s so noticeably unnecessary. He steps in as an insanely self-indulgent producer living it up in a massive mansion, hanging with prostitutes, eating Chinese food and talking, talking, talking. What’s he talking about? Who knows? Wahlberg’s hammy performance is too distracting to pay attention to any of it. Walton Goggins does a fine job as Jack’s lawyer and Louise Bourgin is serviceable as his mistress, but the only supporting character that manages to make a marked impression is this adorable little white dog who reluctantly buddies up with Isaac.
Clearly Mojave is way off in certain respects, but Monahan deserves some serious credit because you can still feel that he tried to tell the story his way. It’s as though the movie is bursting at the seams with passion and intensity, but there’s just too much grey area in between the more powerful moments for the experience to mean all that much in the end.
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