United States. Directed by William Monahan, 2015. Starring Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Mark Wahlberg, Louise Bourgoin, Walton Goggins, Fran Kranz. 93 minutes.
What makes for good film writing? A solid narrative spine? Credible characterization? Memorable dialog? Alternatively, you can attempt what writer/director William Monahan does in Mojave, his latest directorial effort: make half-assed attempts at all three and pray to God that your cast–mostly reliable character-actors, plus Garrett Hedlund and Mark Wahlberg–can make up the deficit.
Hedlund stars as Thomas, a reckless burnout of a screenwriter who ditches his responsibilities in favor of a head-clearing camping trip in the desert. There he meets Jack (Oscar Isaac), a drifter with a philosophical bent and a habid of creeping Thomas right the fuck out. Thomas’s trip takes a tragic turn when he ends up accidentally killing a cop with Jack’s rifle, setting off a cat-and-mouse game between the two.
Mojave has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. Character motivations are either insufficiently clued (it wasn’t until my third viewing that I noticed that Jack was a serial killer) or entirely absent, and the dialog doesn’t pick up the slack. Entire conversations go by where people string together sentences but never actually say anything coherent. (The phone conversation with Hedlund and his lawyer, played by Walton Goggins in his underwear, is a great example.) Monahan seems to expect us to figure out what’s going on by ourselves, which is great, except that he often doesn’t give us enough to go on.
Add to this the lackluster performances–Hedlund entirely failing to convey anything much, Wahlberg doing his standard beligerent Southie routine, Goggins apparently bored off his ass, and why bother to hire Fran Kranz if you’re not going to do anything with him?–and two-dimensional characterization (we’ve seen all of these characters before in a dozen other movies), and what you get is a sure-fire recipe for a dull slog of something that’s supposed to be a crime thriller. Suspense is only possible when you care about the characters, something that becomes damn near impossible.
Fresh off of two career-making performances in Ex Machina and The Force Awakens, Isaac turns out to be the film’s sole bright spot. Not that, in terms of character development, Jack is any more compelling than anyone else in this fiasco; he’s basically a thug who quotes Shakespeare, calls everybody “brother,” and isn’t as slick as he thinks he is. But Isaac is the only one who seems to have any awareness of what he’s doing, the only one putting in any effort to engage the audience.
It’s not enough to justify actually watching the damned thing, unless you have a driving urge to see Oscar Isaac in a Speedo. In which case, congratulations! You have found your movie. Everyone else, steer clear.