“Do you know yet which one of us is the bad guy?”
Such is the crux of Academy Award winning screenwriter William Monahan’s hard-bitten existential thriller, in which Tron: Legacy’s Garrett Hedlund is Tom, travelling to the desert following a personal crisis and discovering his own doors of perception – in the form of Jack, a drifter with a penchant for philosophy and a potential thief and/or serial killer. The meeting does not go well, and the bulk of the film deals with what happens when the two men return to civilisation, such as is Los Angeles. Tom commences an affair, while Jack follows him home and turns his life inside out.
Any number of other films have considered the relationship between the desert and L.A. – notably Polanski’s Chinatown – and here it’s presented as a sparse and laconic cousin to Boogie Nights (hence, presumably, the inclusion of Wahlberg in the cast), the Mojave a place where the dirty secrets of the filmmaking world can be laid to rest in isolation from the earning potential in the city. In some ways this is a revenge thriller – one in which the revenge is retribution for an affront deliberately provoked by the retaliating dark angel himself – and Mojave bestrides profundity and machismo in a purposefully uncomfortable manner. Intentionally thin on character and background, Monahan (author of Scorsese’s Infernal Affairs remake The Departed) draws a picture of the superficial nature of success, but stops short of any third act revelations of the kind seen in Fight Club. Indeed, Mojave stops short of providing any definitive answers, preferring instead a conclusion that looks like a happy ending but might well be anything but.
Hedlund as Tom consciously echoes Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison, even down to the macho lolloping gait; a taciturn blank space of a man bored with success and all too ready to take his fame for granted, thus ripe for Jack’s extreme form of reconstruction. Isaac (Poe Dameron in Disney’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is by far the livelier of the two, but that’s not to say he’s particularly animated. His is an incredibly dry performance, of the most sinister amicability.
The sparseness of Monahan’s film is an echo of the remoteness of the Mojave desert, the dialogue exchanges for the most part are brief and colourless – albeit peppered with plenty of colourful language – and for once this feels like it might have benefitted from an extra half hour. Conversely, by keeping it sleek and thin, Monahan is able to focus almost entirely on his two principals, and their scenes together are electric. This probably isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, but it’s a darned sight cleverer than most of its genre cousins.
MOJAVE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: WILLIAM MONAHAN / SCREENPLAY: WILLIAM MONAHAN / STARRING: GARRETT HEDLUND, OSCAR ISAAC, LOUISE BOURGOIN, MARK WAHLBERG / RELEASE DATE: 16TH MAY