When a writer-director’s latest film focuses on the mental turmoil and soul searching of a writer-director, one can only assume that there’s some kind of autobiographical journey in play. William Monahan, who won and Academy Award for writing the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” does just that with his second directing effort “Mojave.” While the story may be fantastical, its commentary on the Hollywood system is unequivocal. Unfortunately, the movie’s erratic tone is a different story.
Garrett Hedlund plays Thomas, a rich and famous filmmaker who ventures into the Mojave Desert for either a bit of soul searching or to drink himself into obliteration (possibly both). Out there, he’s stumbled upon by a creepy drifter named Jack (Oscar Isaac), who sports long hair and a fanny pack and carries a rifle. Jack shares the story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the desert in a feeble attempt to prove his intellectual prowess. “I tend towards the fantastical,” he says. But eventually the rifle becomes an issue, and an ensuing physical altercation leads to sudden death in the desert.
From there, it would have made more sense if “Mojave” had remained a two-man tête-a-tête in the desert; maintaining the air of mystery as the two hunted each other in the wild. Instead, the film weirdly reverts back to Hollywood and explores its filmmaking politics. There, Mark Wahlberg plays an over-the-top coke-dealer turned film producer who roams around in a bathrobe and plays to every rich and demanding stereotype. That he becomes a target as Jack follows Thomas to L.A. and continues to stalk him suggests that Monahan had some anger he needed to express at the studio system — not that it finds an apt expression in the plot that follows.
The motives of either character are unclear, but that seems intentional, as Jack says earlier in the desert, “I’m into motiveless malignity. I’m a Shakespeare man.” That could be fair justification for ambiguity, but there’s a difference between unclear motives and underwritten ones, and the unfortunate fate of Monahan’s female characters involves the latter. Thomas’ French mistress (Louise Bourgoin) floats around in floral robes and feigns interest in the fact that Thomas has “a stalker.” She’s an ethereal being who simply exists to give Thomas another person for Jack to threaten; easily fitting into the “women in refrigerators” trope.
The overarching problem with “Mojave” is that the two tones don’t mesh well together, to the point where it seems Monaghan can’t decide if he wants to make an ominous neo-western or a dark satire. Fortunately, the filmmaker’s committed lead actors make some of the storytelling issues bearable. The story of these type of men who set out into the wilderness in search of meaning can become irritating depending on the extent to which their characters are contemptible, but thankfully Hedlund’s seeker is genuinely likable. Isaac fares even better, giving Jack’s character a riotously wacky edge. Jack’s eccentric tendencies mark the occasions where Monahan’s script really shines, as Jack takes over the mansion of a rich Hollywood Hills stranger, sporting his pink speedo and chatting with a confused poodle.
There are instances throughout the entire film of each character trying to prove themselves artistically and intellectually superior while also getting the macho upper hand. The is a familiar cinematic world where everyone’s car kicks up dust as they furiously drive off while simultaneously including references to John Stuart Mill or Fitzgerald into their daily conversation. Eventually Jack’s motivations are revealed, but they don’t exactly mesh with his serial killer persona. As the characters try to prove their scholarly capabilities, the same undercurrent emanates from the script, as if Monahan is trying to prove himself as well. He clearly has much to say about the dangers of the studio system, but “Mojave” is too divided to express either point of view efficiently.
“Mojave” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is seeking distribution.