This has been a good month for moviegoers craving celebrations of machismo. First, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s desperately masculine, Oscar-nominated The Revenant went wide. Then, Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi opened and fizzled in the same weekend. Now, The Departed screenwriter William Monahan’s second directorial effort, Mojave, joins the fray with a naked reverence for manly men peddling their manliness in the movie biz. The film lacks the brazen dick-swinging of 13 Hours and the bravura craftsmanship of The Revenant, but Monahan is something neither Bay nor Iñárritu aspire to be: He’s honest, and his movie is honest by consequence.
It should be immediately noted that Mojave is made neither better nor worse for Monahan’s sincerity as a writer and a director, but it does make the film more interesting. Monahan puts his macho inclinations right up front and refuses to disguise them, even as they start to decline into ego-driven self-portraiture. Mojave’s hero is Tom (Garrett Hedlund), a writer-director like Monahan who lives his life according to every bad boy artist stereotype you can rattle off on one hand: His style is best described as scruffy, he speaks primarily in grunts, he drinks like a fish, he ignores all of his phone calls, and he goes off on jaunts into the titular desert for no discernible reason other than to find himself by indulging his ennui and his tough guy reveries. Basically, he’s kind of an asshole.
On one such trek into the Mojave, he wrecks his jeep and attempts to make his way home on foot. But as he rests by his campfire one night, he’s approached by a drifter, Jack (Oscar Isaac), who looks like Jack Sparrow and Carl McCoy’s lovechild, sounds like The Simpsons’ Fat Tony doing Clint Eastwood, and pretends to be the Devil. He’s clearly bad news, but Tom engages his eccentric guest in philosophical digressions about selfhood, government and Moby Dick; when Jack overstays his welcome, Tom draws on the survival skills he has cultivated from years of living in Hollywood, knocks Jack out, and summarily abandons him in the wild. (So maybe the film is more like The Revenant than meets the eye.) On the journey home, he also kills a park ranger by accident per the demands of Anton Chekhov.
This all happens within the film’s first 30 minutes. With 60 more to pad out, Monahan sets up a cat-and-mouse game as Jack, the only living witness to the ranger’s death, tracks Tom back to L.A. and blackmails him. You can sense the film’s lack of confidence in itself right off the bat. It’s enough that Tom leaves Jack to the Mojave’s tender mercies. Throwing in a case of Insomnia feels like excess, and if there is one prevailing through line in Mojave, it is excess exactly: excess of themes, excess of cast members (including a wonderfully sardonic Walton Goggins and Mark Wahlberg hitting peak Wahlberg), excess of reference points. After riffing on gangster films in his debut as a director, 2010’s London Boulevard, Monahan has chosen to mimic modern and classic neo-noirs in a satire of the entertainment world colored with the lightest shades of Altman, Sturges, Martin McDonagh, and De Palma (sans the sleaze).
It may come as little surprise that the results of Monahan’s pastiche are a tad schizophrenic. Part of that has to do with his assertiveness as a writer. For as much as his script muses over questions of identity, he can’t decide on the sort of movie he wants Mojave to be. Is it a blistering middle finger aimed at the very industry that affords him his livelihood? Is it a dark thriller peppered with critiques of wealth and elite privilege? Is it an examination of man’s darker impulses? Is it a bad Bible allegory? Or is it just another showcase for Isaac, coming off of a banner 2015 that saw him elevated to bona fide star status? Hedlund might not be much of a leading man, but he is improved as an actor just by hanging out in Isaac’s gravitational field.
Like Monahan, Isaac has no clue what the hell Mojave is, but it doesn’t matter. As he jaws his way through the film’s pompously beefed-up dialogue, you’ll find yourself wishing you were watching whatever movie he thinks he’s in. Isaac’s off-the-charts charisma, combined with Monahan’s pitch black sense of humor, lends Mojave an off-kilter captivation. When it’s skewering the Hollywood studio system, the film is a thorough delight. When it’s about literally anything else—extortion, Jesus, murder most foul—it feels confused and disjointed. It’s possible Monahan had much and more to say about the phony baloney side of making movies—he clearly has a chip on his shoulder toward meddling producer types—but if so, he has held too much back for his movie’s own good. It’s a halfhearted attempt at giving Hollywood’s studio system what it deserves. Next time, maybe he ought to try getting lost in the desert first.
Director: William Monahan
Writer: William Monahan
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Oscar Isaac, Mark Wahlberg, Walton Goggins
Release Date: January 22, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.