The high desert of the Mojave makes for a spectacular cinematic backdrop, particularly for bouts of handsome sulking, like kicking back on the hood of your jeep and cracking a Modelo while watching thunderheads gather in the distance, and so it’s no wonder Tom (Garrett Hedlund) escapes there in the opening scenes of writer/director William Monahan’s pseudo-thriller “Mojave”. After all, Tom’s introduced as some sort of major Hollywood player, with a skeletal variation of an Oscar statue on his shelf, and a lithe French beauty in his bed. This would be enough for most men, yes? Not Tom, who moans in a morose opening confessional “I’ve been famous in one way or another since I was 19—and you get tired. You want to be like Byron. You want to go to Greece. You want to run guns in Africa.” Eh, the Mojave’ll have to do. So he lights out for it, staring down a desert twister, howling at a pack of coyotes to try and goad them into a fight (the coyotes decline), and then, finally, deliberately crashing his jeep, and muttering “good” to himself before wandering off into the desert with just a backpack and water jug, perhaps to die, perhaps to live, perhaps to tumble down the rabbit hole.
It’s no mistake that Tom looks a little like Jesus, with the flowing mane and goatee. You know that story, surely, where the Devil tempted the Messiah. Well, Monahan knows it too. In the midst of Tom’s trek he spies a strangely charismatic drifter named Jack (Oscar Isaac) on a distant ridge, carrying a rifle, as if he was an extra in a Sam Peckinpah movie from back in the day and has just been waiting for someone to show up. Jack wanders down to Tom’s campsite and, sure enough, explicitly references Jesus and the Devil. And Jack goes on to drop so many literary references he sorta sounds like a first year English student eager to pack in everything he learned first semester to impress a date, when all he needed to say was what he settles on eventually… “I’m into motiveless malignity.” That’s more like it! Who needs pesky motivation for being a villain? He just is one, with a catchphrase already in tow – namely “Brother,” which he says at the conclusion of virtually every sentence, as if he’s been studying Michael Mann’s “Heat” and decided Waingro is his favorite character.
In the moment, you half-suspect that Jack is merely the manifestation of Tom’s creative impulses, like Tom has become a variation on John L. Sullivan, so desperate to understand actual hardship in an effort to tell a new story that this entire self-abandonment in the desert was a means to a moviemaking ends. Alas, this idea falls by the wayside when the two men go macho, exchanging insults, brawling, and then stalking one another through the desert, which ends with Tom inadvertently killing a cop with Jack as the only witness. This sends Tom high-tailing it for the haven of Hollywood while Jack gives gradual chase.
Then, “Mojave” sort of diverges into a couple un-easily co-existing movies. On one hand, it’s something of a Hollywood satire, loosely documenting Tom’s struggles to get his current project off the ground, as he holds council with his agent, played by Walton Goggins as if he can’t wait for all this to be over, and with his producing partner, one played by Mark Wahlberg as if, all these years later, Dirk Diggler has finally (inevitably?) devolved into Rahad Jackson. But on the other hand, it’s a thriller, where Jack is revealed as a serial killer, murdering innocents just cuz, threatening Tom’s loved ones, and consequently turning rudderless Tom into a defender of hearth & home.
Problem is, Hedlund is so much better as a malcontent in the desert than a Hollywood nobleman while the deliciously menacing Isaac, who is supposed to be unlikable in conventional terms, out-enchants his co-star at every turn. In his introductory monologue, Isaac’s character calls himself “a Shakespeare man”, and I wonder if he fancies Mercutio, because Jack hijacks “Mojave” Mercutio-style, so much so that it’s a pity he has to stick to the well-worn path of thriller machinations, a path that Isaac’s performance keeps trying to get off. There are glimmers here of Charlie Kaufman but it needed a full-blown Charlie Kaufman takeover.
I kept wishing that once Jack left the desert for La La Land, slipped into a crisp suit and shades and shaved off his shaggy hair, making like a studio exec, that he really would make like a studio exec, walk out of “Mojave” and onto a different set completely, issuing an of-the-moment remake in the midst of the movie he was starring in, maybe one that would probably be a lot better than “Mojave.”