Mark Reviews Movies



2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: William Monahan

Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Oscar Isaac, Mark Wahlberg, Walton Goggins, Louise Bourgoin

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 1/22/16 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 21, 2016

Which is worse: a self-important serial killer or a self-important Hollywood screenwriter? That seems to be the question posed by Mojave, a movie with a very strange sense of moral equivalency. Maybe, though, it's not equivalency. Perhaps these two characters are placed together as a means of contrast, as if the movie is arguing that, yes, those Hollywood folks are bad but not when compared to this guy. Maybe it's simply a way to put a lot of superficial weight on what is otherwise a fairly straightforward thriller about a man of questionable values who ends up looking better because his opponent is so much worse.

The point of this questioning is that we shouldn't really need to question a movie's intentions to such an extent, and we especially shouldn't have to wonder at the purpose of a movie of such narrative simplicity. Maybe the point is that, as bad as a person may be, there's always somebody worse. Perhaps the point is that egocentric impulses are always just a step away from becoming destructive ones. Maybe it's that people inevitably turn into their worst selves, but here I go again, trying to pull answers from something that seems to have none.

What writer/director William Monahan's movie ultimately comes across as is a lot of self-gratifying dialogue, concepts, and conceits that are meant to let us know that Monahan is a deep thinker who has really thought about and wrestled with these ideas. The resulting movie leaves one certain that Monahan might have benefited from a little more time thinking and wrestling, albeit with a mind toward things like thematic clarity and an ultimate goal.

The story follows Thomas (Garrett Hedlund), a successful screenwriter who has a habit of going "off the radar" when things get tough. Things are tough, so he takes a trip out to the Mojave Desert for some time alone to think about life, the universe, and everything while drinking straight from a bottle or two of liquor. A man with a rifle comes upon his campsite at night. His name is Jack (Oscar Isaac), and he is also a man of deep thoughts that probably sound better in his head than they do aloud.

They talk for a while, mostly about thinking about life's Big Questions, as well as the desert and its place in the realm of existential crises throughout history. The nomadic Jack considers himself to be a "Shakespeare man" and has determined that every choice in life comes down to that one question: "To be, or not to be." The tension between the two men finally erupts, and Thomas knocks the mysterious stranger unconscious and takes his rifle.

As one might expect, there are complications. Thomas learns that someone has been killing people in the desert, and the number of victims lines up with the number of notches etched into Jack's rifle. There's another dead body in the desert, thanks to Thomas' paranoia about his new acquaintance, and Jack is the only witness to the shooting. Thomas returns to his home and tries to hide the evidence of his deed. Jack comes to town to find the screenwriter and force him to confront his actions.

Upon returning to the City of Angels, the movie transforms into something resembling a broad satire of Hollywood. The producer of Thomas' latest movie is played by Mark Wahlberg with a no-nonsense, frat-boy mentality. Walton Goggins plays the writer's agent, who would rather his client speak in hypotheticals about the moral dilemma in which he finds himself, because the agent gets ten percent either way.

Thomas is a philandering husband while his wife and child are in England as he gets their new house put together (See, Thomas is kind of transitory, just like Jack, and just so we don't miss the comparison, Monahan repeatedly has the pair refer to each as "brother"). He's carrying on an affair with Milly (Louise Bourgoin), an actress from the movie. She's a rising starlet who's admired more for her celebrity than her talents (She receives a standing ovation for a bad production of The Tempest while adoring fans wait outside to snap photographs of her).

There's nothing new to Monahan's observations, and there's no real damage from his jabs, either. The placement of the sociopathic Jack as a counterpoint to and possible reflection of these generic Hollywood "values" seems to be Monahan's idea of knock-out punch against the system. It's reaching too far, though, and for all his easy charm and railing against the deficiencies of modern culture, Jack remains little more than a plot device. Isaac's performance somehow keeps the erratic character grounded by making sure we're aware of Jack's constant process of rationalizing his actions. Hedlund offers a solid performance, too.

The pair of performances at least keeps the verbal sparring matches engaging, and it's not until the final one that even the actors can't disguise how contrived this dialogue is. Because why not, here's one more theory: Mojave is a movie about a screenwriter who comes to realize he has no control, and the movie also serves as an example of what it's about.

Copyright 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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