Reuniting after Inside Llewyn Davis in William Monahan’s second feature film is Garrett Hedlund and Oscar Isaac. Hedlund plays Thomas, a suicidal artist in the dregs of Hollywood who goes out into the desert. While there he comes across a lone homicidal drifter, Jack (Isaac). The meeting goes south quickly. After some platitudes about god and the devil and both men trying to outwit the other, it’s not long before Thomas takes off after a violent accident, back to lackluster life that offers him little more than economic stability.
Soon Jack is on his tail with blackmail in hand against the star, planning to seek his revenge of a stranger who wished him ill will one lonely night in the desert.
On paper there is no reason this film shouldn’t have worked. Monahan penned the script for The Departed. Garrett Hedlund has been on the cusp of a breakout performance for years now, coming close by being the best part by a landslide in the lazily adapted On the Road, and Oscar Isaac is one of the most exciting actors working today, and Mojave was offering him the chance to play the villain. Even better, Hedlund and Isaac had worked together in Inside Llewyn Davis, and this film would allow the two actors to interact with one another with more than simply grunts from Hedlund’s side.
What Mojave wishes to achieve and its actual end result are two vastly different things. It’s difficult to understand just how the film could have completely missed their mark. Aiming for allegorical subtext and a dialogue on how men can falter to violence when an ideal of masculinity and alternatively, failure, are repeatedly smashed into their heads. Instead, the film is left feeling like a buffoonish cartoon, seemingly more a satire than an intellectual study. What’s so maddening about the film is that it never quite figures out what kind of movie it wants to be, switching back and forth as quickly as Jack switches his identity from homeless wanderer to suave hit man. Obviously taking cues from popular contemporaries and classic filmmakers, Monahan’s film starts out as if it’s planning on being an overtly talkie meditation on human beings, the sacrifices people make for their art, and the pitiless nature of Thomas’s character, who seems to have it all, only to being living an internal nightmare. It thrusts itself deeper in pseudo psychological throes when Thomas ventures out into the dessert with the plan to kill himself, riddled with self-hatred over the vapid lifestyle he leads.
This is all made more difficult to swallow when Thomas isn’t written to be a likable or sympathetic character.
But then he meets Jack, and the film changes its tune, in large part due to the dissonance between Isaac’s performance and Hedlund. Hedlund never quite reaches anything above a rumble of something intriguing in this role, largely injured by the fact that the part isn’t written with any depth, and that we’ve seen similar roles before of characters who are disenchanted with fame, who are tortured artists looking to reacquaint themselves with their roots. Isaac, in turn, is also given a rather one note character, but instead of taking Hedlund’s quieter approach, Isaac launches his most scenery chewing performances, looking as if he’s having a blast with the verbose monologues he’s forced to spit out every few moments. His performance turns this introspective film into a theatrical one. Then, just before you’ve settled down with your newest bout of whiplash, the third act knocks you over the head and turns itself into a subdued game of cat and mouse thriller.
The film is shot with a tired, run down style, which goes from expansive in desert, to sleek and cold once back in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Monahan can obviously pen a good script, and there’s style to be found, but Mojave isn’t only missing substance. It’s missing any good reason to care to watch.
Mojave is available on Direct TV now and in theaters January 6.