Oscar Isaac Can't Quite Save William Monahan's 'Mojave' [Tribeca Review]

At the end of Mojave, a devilish drifter played by Oscar Isaac poses a question to a jaded Hollywood star played by Garrett Hedlund: "Do you know yet which one of us is the bad guy?" That, I guess, is the question being posed by writer-director William Monahan (The Departed) in this odd thriller. But the question I walked away from was an entirely different one: "What's the difference between poetry and pretentious pablum?" 

To rewind a bit, Mojave follows Tom (Hedlund), a movie star who is just so over it. Over what? Everything, it seems. He's rich, famous, and handsome, but his life is just so goddamn empty (much like the palatial mansion he hasn't quite moved into — symbolism!) that he has to do things like drive out into the desert and wreck the company car.

While on his pseudo-Biblical sojourn, Tom crosses paths with a mysterious drifter named Jack (Isaac). One thing leads to another, and a third man winds up dead. Tom runs back to the security of the civilized world, desperate to put the dark events of the desert behind him, but Jack follows him to Hollywood, determined to make Tom pay.

Mojave is a strange film that delights in its strangeness. It's intended to be mythological, rather than literal. Colorful characters drift through a SoCal landscape that might be 1965 or 2015. Characters aren't overly concerned with specific backstories or tidy motivations. In fact, one comes right out and says so: "I'm into motiveless malignity. I'm a Shakespeare man."

And while Shakespeare is Monahan's main obsession, he also tosses in references to John Stuart Mill, Herman Melville, and George Bernard Shaw for good measure. It's all stirred with a strong dose of Hollywood satire. It turns out the City of Angels is, ironically enough, not all that angelic. Who knew? Other than anyone who's ever watched a movie about "the business," I mean?

From moment to moment, Mojave has its pleasures. Chief among them is Isaac's performance. Jack is the best kind of cinematic psychopath: weird and slippery and dangerous, but so damn charismatic you want to spend the whole movie hanging out with him anyway. The way he twists his tongue around Monahan's overwrought dialogue, you might think for a second the words were actual Shakespeare.

Isaac also proves to have excellent chemistry with Hedlund, even if the former's low-pitch intensity is no match for Isaac's magnetism. Other highlights include a hilariously unflappable lawyer played by Walton Goggins, and an adorable white dog owned by one of Jack's unfortunate victims.

As a whole, however, Mojave is a mess. Betraying Monahan's worst instincts as a screenwriter, it manages to be both overwritten and underwritten. Characters spew baroque soliloquies for the sole purpose (it seems) of giving Monahan an excuse to write them, but they all wind up sounding the same. Much time is spent agonizing over Tom's predicament, before we're given any reason to care about his fate. And through it all Mojave seems extraordinarily pleased with itself, as if having read Hamlet was a rare accomplishment instead of a standard 10th grade rite of passage.

Monahan has already proven that he can do great work, with scripts like The Departed, and it's not hard to see how Mojave could work with some retooling. He deserves credit, too, for serving up something ambitious and personal. (The characters might sound like each other, but they definitely all sound like they were written by William Monahan.) But he trips over his own excesses here. As failures go, Mojave is a pretty interesting one. But it's a failure nonetheless.