Film Review: Mojave

Oscar Isaac’s over-the-top performance as a menacing drifter can’t save this turgid neo-noir western.
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Mojave’s premise sounds like the set-up for a joke: A movie star walks into the desert, where he’s greeted at his campfire by a drifter pretending to be the Devil. Unfortunately, The Departed screenwriter William Monahan’s latest–which he both wrote and directed–is a laugher only in unintentional ways, affecting an air of self-seriousness that’s so crushing as to be embarrassing. Stuffing its players full of Shakespearean quotes as it wrestles with existential questions that are only used as embellishments for an empty narrative, it’s an aimless film that, like its protagonists, searches blindly for itself, only to come up empty-handed.

The celebrity at the center of this faux-philosophical neo-noir western is Tom (Garrett Hedlund), who’s introduced on video lamenting the fact that he’s been famous since he was 19. With shaggy hair, a scruffy goatee, and a deep, laid-back voice that exudes both world-weariness and a devil-may-care arrogance, Tom heads out into the Mojave Desert to get away from it all, only to promptly crash his jeep (a rental from his newest movie). At a campfire shortly thereafter, he’s greeted by Jack (Oscar Isaac), a rifle-wielding man of mystery in a cowboy hat and duster jacket whose menacing demeanor is matched by his habit of discussing “To be or not to be” as the fundamental issue of all men, and to state that he’s less fond of Moby-Dick than the Bard because “I’m into motiveless malignity.”

Jack naturally doesn’t trust Tom, and after a violent scuffle, Tom winds up retreating to a cave where he accidentally kills an innocent lawman. This propels him back to his miserable Hollywood life, where he continues to sleep with a budding actress (Louise Bourgoin)–his wife and child have left him for London–and have meaningless exchanges with his lawyer (Walton Goggins) and producer (Mark Wahlberg), both of whom speak in the same sort of over-enunciated Tarantino-esque patois. Those two figures are Mojave’s main means of poking fun at Hollywood extravagance, but Monahan’s dialogue is too affected, and his visuals are too blandly austere, to generate any sort of satirical electricity. Instead, the film putters along at a pace that’s meant to suggest hallucinatory dreaminess but comes across as merely somnambulant.

By the time the proceedings get around to again pitting Tom and Jack against each other in the desert–this after Jack has spent the better part of the film tracking Tom through his ennui-infected life of luxury–the script’s talk of man’s “duality” and “infinite complexities” feels strained to the point of pretentiousness. Amplifying that mood is Hedlund’s monotonous brooding, which makes him seem like the most full-of-himself bore to ever make it big in L.A. Isaac fares better as a man of ill-defined malevolence, if only because the actor’s charismatic overacting helps sell what amounts to an underwritten part. However, stuck quoting literary giants at regular intervals, as well as referring to Hedlund as “brother” like some evil latter-day Hulk Hogan, Isaac is ultimately a victim of material that plays like a pulpy put-on.

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