Directed by William Monahan.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Walton Goggins and Mark Wahlberg.
Movie writer and producer Thomas disappears off into the desert for some solitude and the contents of several vodka bottles. As night falls, he’s approached by a drifter, Jack. Their encounter ends with an argument and Thomas comes off better, leaving Jack on the ground. But he’s not dead, and follows his prey out of the desert and back into the L.A. lifestyle. Adept at wheedling his way in and out of situations and other people’s homes, he’s soon stalking Thomas, with just one aim in mind.
Two thirds of the way into William Monahan’s Mojave, there’s a head to head between movie producer Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) and drifter Jack (Oscar Isaac). Isaac asks if his adversary has figured out yet which one of them is the bad guy. Even stevens is probably the answer, although it comes with an obvious p.s. “It’s not going to end well.”
It’s a film that could have made a two-hander but the fact that Monahan (who also wrote The Departed) sees fit to introduce a handful of other characters almost indicates a lack of confidence on his part. Yet it’s the confrontations between the two men that work the best. They’re two sides of the same coin. Both are educated and literary – Isaac peppers his conversation with quotes – and their conversations aim to be philosophical sparring sessions although, in truth, they don’t lead anywhere much. Hedlund’s built a career for himself, Isaac’s drifter hasn’t. He doesn’t do much of anything, although he does claim the moral high ground, wondering out loud how many people Hedlund has trodden on as he worked his way up.
Those other characters? They could be explained as giving some context to the main storyline although, in truth, it’s a tenuous argument. They are, however, played by names that give the cast list some more weight. The insanity of the movie business is represented by producer Mark Wahlberg, who spends all his time clad in a blue dressing gown and Uggs. And Walton Goggins as a laconic agent sports a white three-piece suit, no socks and dark glasses. Their scenes have a markedly different tone to the rest of the movie, farcical to the point of cartoon-like and it’s not a good fit.
The film begins and ends in the desert of the title, one that transforms overnight. At the start, it’s strangely damp, with dark looming clouds, although Monahan manages to skirt around the dreaded pathetic fallacy. By the following morning, it’s parched dry and blazing hot and, just in case we haven’t got the point, cinematographer Don Davis irritatingly keeps shooting directly into the sun. He shouldn’t have bothered. He does manage to redeem himself later on, with a rather neat bit of camera work all to do with the similarity between Hedlund and Isaac. We watch as they both arrive – separately – at a house. One moment we see Isaac framed in a window, the next there’s an almost identical shot but showing Hedlund. If only he’d used the same imagination elsewhere.
The film’s number one strength, not surprisingly, is Isaac, who steals the whole thing with his measured delivery, ice-cold gaze and ill-disguised menace. He also has some great throwaway lines. On his way to L.A. and still sporting his long hair from the desert, he’s refused a lift by an elderly couple. As they drive off, he mutters, “I wouldn’t give me a ride either.” He temporarily acquires a little dog in the city, with whom he has a continuous and highly entertaining one-sided conversation. Although you can’t blame the dog for looking worried!
Mojave is a film with pretentions to be something bigger – surreal, philosophical even – but the reality is that it’s just talky. The copious quantities of dialogue, some of which is impenetrable, rubs out any of the inherent tension in the stalking set-up. While Isaac might be scary, he’s having to do it all by himself, because the story certainly isn’t. By the time the film is over, there’s the distinct sense of Isaac having outgrown it already. It’s served its purpose by giving him a part to get his teeth into – including the two gold ones he sports throughout – but as a whole it doesn’t deliver as a thriller, drama or the intellectual exercise that it would so love to be.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Freda Cooper Follow me on Twitter, check out my blog and listen to my podcast, Talking Pictures.