“Mojave” Gets Lost in Its Own Desert

Mojave

Mojave (William Monahan, 2015)

The best I can say about Mojave is that it improves significantly as it proceeds. However, since its opening is a dismal dramatic wasteland, that is scant praise, indeed. Starring Garrett Hedlund (On the Road) and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and written and directed by William Monahan (Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Departed, with one previous feature as a director – London Boulevard – under his belt), the film is a showcase for ostensibly fine talent wasted in the service of self-indulgence. No one emerges from the exercise unscathed; in fact, the beatings suffered by the main characters, the one upon the other, are a perfect metaphor for the movie’s effect on our view of their skills. The vapid dialogue forced through the mouths of Hedlund and Isaac by Monahan reduces all three of them to mostly amateurish beginners. Here’s hoping the actors, anyway, recover.

Hedlund plays Thomas, whom we will eventually discover to be a Hollywood star (or director, or producer … we’re never quite sure). As the film opens, he talks to the camera (in what will later turn out to be footage from a documentary of which he is the subject). Cut to him leaving a bedroom where a semi-conscious woman lounges. It almost looks like he’s robbing her, since he slips off her watch and is dressed in ragged clothes. Next we know, he’s off in a jeep, headed towards the desert, grabbing alcohol along the way. As the sun sets, he drinks himself silly, yipping away at the local coyotes off in the distance. The following morning, we watch as he wrecks the jeep and heads off on foot into the wilderness. Is he suicidal? On a walkabout? Before we can dwell too long on these questions, Thomas runs into Jack (Isaac), who looks even shabbier than does he. We’re about 10 minutes into the film, and so far the mystery has not been unpleasant, but now we’re in for a rude surprise, once the dialogue starts. The two strangers face off across the fire and trade pseudo-metaphysical musings about life and … Shakespeare. And then they fight, a battle which sets in motion a cycle of revenge that can only end with one of them left alive. This fireside chat is the nadir of the movie, but though things get better, we never quite escape the initial clumsy and forced set-up.

Along for the career-damaging ride are Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight), Mark Wahlberg (Ted 2) and French actress Louise Bourgoin (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec) – whose strong accent makes her English-language lines near indecipherable – none of whom are better served by the screenplay than are the leads. This is the kind of movie where no one behaves in a way that makes sense, except to justify the next plot development. There’s something to be said for the existence of smaller films like Mojave as alternatives to the excess and explosive violence of so many of today’s blockbusters, but since, ultimately, we get no less violence here than there – and without the craft that makes some of the big movies palatable – then what, exactly is the point? None that I can see.

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