Feature film

Mojave Review: Oh, 'Brother'

Monday, January 25, 2016 Rob Samuelson


Director: William Monahan
Writer: William Monahan
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Walton Goggins, Mark Wahlberg
Rating: Two stars out of five
Available in limited release and on-demand now

William Monahan's scripts adore a certain subset of masculinity, one that is not particularly enlightening. His fictional world is populated with men who are damaged goods, but they don't have much reason to consider themselves so broken. It leads to a detached, wannabe zen “profundity” about how doomed we all are. The only time this has worked was in director Martin Scorsese's 2006 Oscar winner, The Departed, in which Scorsese took the bones of Monahan's busted men tale and subverted it with a sly and often funny exploration of the insecurities that inform such tough-guy posturing.

With Monahan's latest, Mojave, Scorsese is unfortunately nowhere to be seen. This allows Monahan's fraudulent and exhausting takes on humanity's fate to run roughshod over what could have been a slam-dunk revenge thriller.

Garrett Hedlund plays Jim, a filmmaker with a personality of nothing but nihilistic ennui, so he takes his sleepy-eyed dull zombie self to the desert to figure out the meaning of it all. There he meets Oscar Isaac's Jack, a rotten-toothed figure dressed like a cosplayer fan of Stephen King's Dark Tower protagonist, Roland Deschain, all duster jacket and cowboy hat and boots. He walks up to Jim at a campfire and their conversation turns into a stilted bull session about the devil and William Shakespeare, specifically how “Whoa, that's so deep, man” the “to be or not to be” line in Hamlet is. To be clear, that line is deep and full of questions about how worthwhile human life is, but Monahan uses it as cultural currency without expounding on its thematic meanings. Such is the case with every character in Mojave, who say things that sound halfway thoughtful but aren't anything more than window-dressing distractions borrowed from something more meaningful.

It has groaner line after groaner line, with the word “brother,” in the Hulk Hogan way of saying it, used at the end, plus sometimes in the beginning, and don't forget about the middle. “Brother” might be more common in Monahan's script than periods. It's part of a whole with the rest of Monahan's characters, who are all attitude with nothing to show under the hood. We are told these are tough characters, but especially in protagonist Jim's case, we have no way of understanding how he got to be such a glum sad sack. He's been famous for a while, so the intent of his character is something along the lines of, “Celebrities have hard lives, too,” without showing – or even telling – what makes his life hard, beyond the movie's inciting incident that puts Jack into revenge mode. Monahan fetishizes Jim's “above it all” detachment to the point that, when the plot requires him to show even a hint of concern, none of it comes through. Hedlund says words to the effect of, “You aren't safe here,” and, “You need to go someplace safe,” to people he ostensibly cares about while racing around Los Angeles to try to protect them. However, none of that comes through in the performance.

Hedlund's do-nothing performance is frustrating enough, but to see Oscar Isaac not do much is Mojave's biggest failure. The man has been one of the top actors in modern filmmaking since at least his small but rounded performance in 2011's Drive, through to otherworldly turns in Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year, Ex Machina, and HBO's Show Me a Hero – you may recall a little thing called Star Wars: The Force Awakens in there, too. He's been on the early Al Pacino track, but Mojave feels like the work of someone who couldn't care less about his craft. He does some sneering and makes a few surface-level acknowledgements that amount to “I'm dangerous,” but it's otherwise a limp bit of throwaway villainy.

Where Mojave comes in for a slight amount of praise, however, is in Monahan's direction of the climactic showdown between Jim and Jack. After an entire film of cat-and-mouse chasing, it is resolved so abruptly. It's the only subversive act Monahan does in the entire movie, by showcasing how so much work can be put into something, only for its culmination to be so unsatisfactory in its swiftness. It's quick and efficient in a way Monahan would be wise to do in the rest of his work. Here's hoping he tries it some more.  

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