“Mojave” is so manly you can smell the sweat oozing off the screen. Two men, one a famous filmmaker, the other a serial killer go mano e’ mano for ninety tense minutes after a chance meeting in the desert. I would call their back-and-forth a cat and mouse game, but I can’t because they’re both dogs, charismatic anti-heroes with few likeable traits.
Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) is a tortured artist, a famous director struggling to edit his new movie as his personal life disintegrates. Like many he-men before him he takes off to the desert for some soul-searching with only two jugs of water, some smokes and a bottle of vodka as company. “A man goes to the desert to find out what you are,” he says, “if you’re anything at all.”
The Hemingway-esque idyll is interrupted by fellow traveler Jack (Oscar Isaac, who seems to be channelling Max Cady). He’s a silver tongue drifter—“I have poverty an obscurity and abundance,” he says.—with a dangerous aura and a rifle. When an existential campfire conversation turns violent, deadly mistakes are made and soon there will be a reckoning. Thomas and Jack’s desert dalliance continues in Los Angeles as the tension and body count rises.
“Mojave” tale of twisted justice is a Los Angeles noir, a dusty, sun-dappled thriller with hard-boiled dialogue that sounds snatched from Raymond Chandler novel. It’s the kind of movie where tight-lipped men sneer, “You should’ve killed me in the desert,” and a woman brushes off a pick up line with the words, “no thanks, I’m already in a sufficiently disturbing relationship.” The stylized dialogue by “The Departed” writer William Monahan (who wrote and directed this) skirts with parody, often sounding like a duel of bad guy clichés.
Not that it isn’t entertaining. Hedlund and Isaac make the most of Monahan’s musings—as do Mark Wahlberg in an extended cameo as an excitable drug-dealer-turned-film-producer and “The Hateful Eight’s” Walton Goggins who does a bang-on Jack Nicholson impression—and the dynamic between them is interesting. A flip of the coin is used as a metaphor for life and death (seen it before) but here it becomes a larger comment about the vagaries of Thomas and Jack’s life. Why was Thomas successful while Jack could never break through? Was it luck, a toss of the coin or is it about ability?
“Which of us is the sociopath?” asks Jack. “How many people did you leave behind… kill… on your trip up the [Hollywood] hill?”
It’s a question that lingers after the end credits roll but it is too bad that is the only remaining sentiment. “Mojave” is not nearly as profound as it thinks it is despite some good actors trying their best to bring real meaning to the script. Perhaps the most telling line of dialogue comes early on in a conversation between the leads. “Where are you going?” asks Jack.” “Nowhere in particular,” says Thomas. That’s the movie in a nutshell.