Two highly intelligent men sit across a table from each other, one a homicidal maniac (Oscar Isaac), the other a tortured Hollywood artist who has “been famous in one way or another since he was nineteen” (Garrett Hedlund) and also seems pretty comfortable killing people. Their dialogue comes from writer/director William Monahan, who also wrote “The Departed” and “The Gambler”. The two actors spout about the duality of man and infinite complexity, but in too peculiar a manner to be considered pretentious (especially since they insist on addressing each other as “brother” in every other sentence). Much like the diner scene between Pacino and De Niro in “Heat”, the two men seem to accept the inevitability of a fatal end. That final “great adventure” is discussed at length, with a memorable line about the Grim Reaper and a fistful of cancer over a friendly game of Russian roulette. If the A24 release “Mojave” were boiled down to just a few of these conversations, you’d think you were onto something brilliant. What we have here, though, is something like Bret Easton Ellis by way of Hitchcock, or perhaps “The Hitcher” via Paul Thomas Anderson. (Only one in each of those is meant to be flattering—I’ll let you decide which). Either way, it is an interesting, if not entirely cohesive, noir thriller that feels like it’s after something deeper, but it gets the job done. The random events that fuel this cat-and-mouse game between Isaac and Hedlund seem to signify some sort of existential catharsis that the two men are sharing, a mid-life crisis of a “Fight Club” proportion. Duality of man, brother.
Fate has them meeting for the first time in the desert—Hedlund out to find and/or kill himself, and Isaac just out for a leisurely stroll with a .30-06 rifle. Isaac’s character is Jack, a Shakespeare-quoting piece of work with a big IQ, a dead tooth, and a mullet/bandana combo that owes something to “First Blood”. After a skirmish, Hedlund– a scruffy Kurt Cobain analog named Thomas–accidentally kills a Mexican Federale, leaving his psychotic campfire buddy to take the fall. Vengeance ensues. Who’s the bad guy? Who’s the worse guy? How and why these characters do what they do from there doesn’t always make sense (for example: with an angry drifter stalking you, you’d think not to leave your windows and doors open 24/7). Thomas has a multitude of houses, cars and lackeys, and a mistress (Louise Bourgoin) who begrudgingly fills the void left by his wife and daughter who’ve gone abroad. He drifts between them like it’s just another day, and Monahan paints Tinseltown in the neutral shades of indifference shared by Hedlund’s warped protagonist. Mark Wahlberg and Walton Goggins pop in and out of the picture like reject caricatures from “Inherent Vice”, the former in particular providing the film with bursts of goofball comedy as an industry jerk off (see also: “Entourage”). Production quality is good, but some of the scenes feel abruptly stacked upon one another, whether it’s the editing or a purposefully off-kilter directorial style. Nevertheless, it’s a fine script, and Monahan and his two leads did it well enough to keep this critic engaged.