In an early scene of “Mojave,” an idiosyncratic vagrant named Jack (Oscar Isaac) poses a philosophical question: “Do you believe in the duality of man?” Director and writer William Monahan constructs his middling latest effort, “Mojave,” around this very theme. The film follows two men—the aforementioned Jack and a wealthy yet morose Los Angeles artist named Thomas (Garrett Hedlund)—as they fall into a tangle of violence, precipitated by a night spent in the Mojave Desert. Despite its emotive cinematography, “Mojave” ultimately falters due to an overwrought screenplay and mostly ineffectual acting.
The film’s plot begins promisingly enough: A depressed Thomas journeys into the desert alone and captures the attention of Jack, who speaks in esoteric phrases and pries into Thomas’ personal life. Jack threatens Thomas, who then retaliates without hesitation, nearly killing him. Thomas is driven to murder the following morning when he mistakes a police officer for Jack and accidentally shoots him. A game of cat-and-mouse thus begins; upon his return to Los Angeles, Thomas must find a way to protect his success and family from Jack, who infiltrates his life in the pursuit of justice.
Although Monahan’s screenplay attempts to explore larger themes of fate, death, and justice, “Mojave” lacks the grit and eloquence that it so desperately seeks to express. Isaac is left to bear the weight of these weighty topics, for Hedlund’s unexpressive performance leaves much to be desired: He comes across as brooding and without conviction, despite attempts to portray his character as a complex artist drudging through the aftermath of a divorce and an unsatisfying affair. Indeed, the film’s few redemptive moments are due to Oscar Isaac’s acting. His manic eccentricity comes across as more believable than the roughly emotional gesturing of Hedlund. However, the little verbal flourishes and mannerisms he adds to the role (including severely overusing the word “brother” when talking to Hedlund) can also eventually grow tiresome.
Consistently impressive, though, is the work of cinematographer Don Davis. Davis captures the oft-ignored somber aspects of Los Angeles in a manner that successfully mirrors Thomas’ dissatisfaction with life. Not one bit of the city’s glimmer or seductive stardom appears in the film as the camera lingers on the mundane: a worn-down tennis court, floating garbage on the murky surface of a swimming pool, a dust-laden road. But despite these brief moments of beauty, the world of Los Angeles doesn’t quite meld well with the clean vastness of the Mojave Desert. In some moments, the disjointed settings seem to come from two incompatible films that have very distinct tones and intentions.
Additionally, certain editing techniques work well with the film’s cinematography. Quick cuts and dramatic camera angles emphasize and enhance the occasional brutal violence and stark environment. Patient, stable camerawork allows the viewer to stay present in the moment and fully observe characters. And yet even the most subtle of directing techniques fail when the subjects themselves––here, Thomas and Jack–– are frustratingly boring.
“Mojave” is not a terrible film, but it also fails to leave the viewer satisfied or transformed in any way. Structurally, the film would have more gravitas if it took the time to thoroughly examine the intensity of Thomas’ emotions—but because “Mojave” lacks empathy, Thomas’ motivation to protect his family seems inconsequential, even insincere. The viewer is thus unable to emotionally invest in the film, which makes for an apathetic and uninspiring ending. “Mojave” reaches for the boldness of crime thrillers like “No Country for Old Men” and Monahan’s critically acclaimed “The Departed,” but without the charismatic leads and taut dialogue of the former two films, it falls short.
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