The first word that comes to mind when thinking about Mojave is “odd.” The movie – built around a cat-and-mouse chase between its two leads – is hard to completely dislike because of its cast, who are burrowing further into a group of characters than the paper thin script deserves. But it is so wholeheartedly strange, ruling itself by something akin to dream logic and twisting its story down a road of surprises that only occasionally stick, that it’s also hard to completely like Mojave as well.
Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) is a dissatisfied thirty-something, looking for a refuge of sorts in the deserts of the Mojave, where he seeks to find… something. The film’s script, by writer-director William Monahan (he wrote The Departed), isn’t exactly forthright. Eventually, Thomas stumbles across a long-haired, rifle-packing drifter named Jack (Oscar Isaac) and the two engage in a battle of wits that begins to tiptoe towards adversary. “Battle of wits” is giving it too much credit; Monahan’s film is more clever when it’s quiet than when it speaks, and even the impossible-to-not-suck Isaac can’t make the Shakespeare-obsessed Jack rise above his film school-level villainy.
The scuffle that ensues between the two cements the movie’s dreamlike logic I mentioned before, somewhat softening the blow of everything that comes after since the entire conflict of the movie arises from the argument. Eventually, Thomas makes it out of the Mojave, battled and bruised, with Jack hot on his heels. The second act turn, where we learn more about who Thomas is and why he went into the desert in the first place, is far and away the best thing about Mojave. It’s that oddness finally approaching something in the neighborhood of intelligence.
It immediately perks up a movie that began to feel stale and frustrating the more mystery it attempted to build up, and sort of pivots it into a satisfyingly unexpected genre. Out of nowhere actors pop up to underscore the surprise (Louise Bourgoin and Walton Goggins are both of particular note here), and Thomas’ previously annoying off-putting personality is cleverly explained given his revealed profession. It doesn’t completely excuse the befuddling first half of the movie, but it works towards giving Mojave as a whole more of an identity than the vanilla desert-set crime drama it’s marketed as.
Despite Jack’s ordinary villainy, Isaac can’t help but shine. Moments of his impending violence are telegraphed from a mile away, and yet when they happen, it’s deliciously fun to watch him wade his way through his strange monologues and demented reasoning for chasing Thomas down after their clash in the desert. Thankfully, blessedly, the movie keeps the eye-roll of a possibility that Jack is just an extension of Thomas’ screwed-up psyche as far back as possible, at least giving the actions of the duo some tangibility, no matter how illogical.
It doesn’t keep the downright strangeness of Monahan’s script from seeping through, however. Hedlund is fine as the broken Thomas, but he never really acts like a normal person, immediately jumping to out-there conclusions and actions that are never explained, even after we learn more about him. He’s supposed to be standoffish and weird — obviously from the way his coworkers act around him, like the criminally underused Fran Kranz — but it feels more like a tool for Monahan to craft the movie’s violent elements around rather than anything that’s true to his character.
That fantasy logic also seeps into the movie’s actual crime elements, of which there really aren’t much. Suffice it to say, Thomas does something bad while out there in the Mojave, and the initial build-up of his return to civilization feels like we’re in for another cat-and-mouse chase, this time between him and the cops. By my count there’s exactly two or three scenes with police in the entire thing, so that never happens; Thomas is far more concerned with his job and, eventually, evading Jack’s fairly pleasant wrath.
Maybe that’s okay given the unusual reasoning at work in Mojave, but the movie has one too many moments like it – head-scratching sensibilities that appear to be created as acts of mystery and character intrigue but just make the movie as a whole harder to fully trust. Worst yet, the somewhat solid second act plunges into a frustrating return to the befuddling form of what we saw in the movie’s opening, with a thud of an ultimate conclusion that I’m honestly not sure is better or worse than the teased possibility of Jack pulling a Tyler Durden.
Silver linings though, the last bits confirm my initial theories of Mojave‘s opening scenes: despite momentary dips into some existential cleverness, the movie wears its pretentiousness far too much on its sleeve to be able to be taken truly seriously. “Do you know yet which one of us is the bad guy?” asks Jack to Thomas near the movie’s final moments, highlighting, starring, and bolding the movie’s central we all have monsters thesis like it’s throwing a bucket of ice water onto its audience, who asked that question approximately 85 minutes before he did. Jack could have been the Devil, or Thomas’ evil twin, or imaginary, I really have no idea, but nothing creatively emerging from Monahan’s script could have ever added any ultimate satisfactory meaning to this barren wasteland of a movie.
Mojave has more on its mind than the simple cat-and-mouse game it begins as, but Monahan's arid script is far more concerned with appearing clever and disruptive than actually being creatively competent.