Tribeca Film Festival Review: MOJAVE

What if Llewyn Davis were Satan but, like, a really fun Satan?

William Monahan has written a lot of dark and edgy films, like Edge of Darkness for instance. He also wrote a few other films that I like, and a couple that I think are pretty okay. Point being, I don’t think he’s ever written a bad movie per se, and Mojave, while oddly balanced at times, may very well feature some of his best scenes as a screenwriter. It’s also his second time in the director’s chair, and he’s not terrible at it by any stretch, though there doesn’t seem to be anything special about what he does behind the camera. The reason I’m starting out with a bit of creative background here is because the film is so clearly born out of a crisis of creativity. It comes from a very strange, yet very specific place. Garrett Hedlund plays a screenwriter that looks an awful lot like a younger William Monahan, and he goes out into the Mojave desert to think for a while when weird stuff starts to happen, which is essentially how Monahan came up with the script, only rather than imagining it, Hedlund’s character runs into a desert pirate/Lit-nerd/serial killer played by Oscar Isaac, who turns in the most bizarre performance I’ve seen by an American actor since James Franco in Spring Breakers. Make no mistake, the film is pretty good on its own, but Isaac’s performance is an absolute delight.

Monahan’s take on Hollywood here is a bitter one, yet rather than allowing the film to spiral into a preachy statement about the industry, he uses it as a backdrop to tell a story of twisted souls in the land of the soulless. Hedlund’s Thomas, a successful though emotionally unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter up and leaves his mistress’ side to go out into the desert in a production truck basically out of the blue. It’s the first thing that happens, and the film offers little to no context as to who he is or what’s got him all hot and bothered outside of a voicemail from his wife and kids in England. Like any good writer, he gets drunk and yells into the void, challenging his demons to come and face him head on instead of hiding in the darkness, just out of sight.

His prayers are answered when Oscar Isaac shows up at his campsite looking like a parody of a Johnny Depp character. A printed bandana holds back his messy hair, his boots and his long jacket making him look a bit like a biker and a bit like a pirate, and his two silver teeth making him look A LOT like a pirate. He speaks with a raspy, metallic voice, referring to Thomas as “brother” while talking about how he’s the devil and how Moby Dick would’ve been better if Captain Ahab had both legs. Just writing this paragraph is making me smile ear to ear, because it’s such a nutty performance, and his first scene is such a blast despite the fact that it’s just two guys sitting and talking around a campfire. They compare and contrast the duality of man to his infinite complexities, as Isaac’s Jack keeps talking about his theories on creativity and existence (quite coherently, mind you) and Thomas, now drunk as a fish, simply looks on in bewilderment as this weird doppelganger tells him things he desperately needs to hear, disguised as the ramblings of an over-enthusiastic cosplayer who wandered too far from Sons of AnarCon.

The two grow increasingly suspicious of each other and eventually get into a scuffle over Jack’s rifle, as Thomas rejects the introspection offered up by what appears to be a projection of his subconscious, but Jack is very real and very dangerous, as the troubled screenwriter soon discovers. After accidentally shooting someone who he thought was Jack, Thomas disposes of the rifle and high-tails it back to Los Angeles, discovering along the way that Jack isn’t just a wanderer who likes to quote Shakespeare and laugh at his own jokes; he’s also some sort of serial killer, one who would’ve claimed his eighth victim had Thomas not gotten away. The film never quite manages to regain the sense of surrealism it had around the campfire, and its philosophical musings never go beyond ground that’s already been tread, but it manages to grow continuously idiosyncratic largely due to Jack following Thomas back to the city and interacting with LA residents and their environment.

Oscar Isaac is quickly becoming one of my favourite actors. I can’t wait to see him in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I have no idea what to expect from him in X-Men: Apocalypse, which I’ve come to realize is actually quite exciting, but what’s so fascinating about his role in Mojave is just how much he’s the anti-Llewyn Davis. Jack’s an artist in his own way and he’s fallen on hard times (creatively), but rather than searching for meaning and inspiration, or even introspection like his counterpart Thomas, he turns his frustrations outward. He says he’s “part of the 99%” though it doesn’t seem like he’s talking about economics as much as he’s referring to his lack of success in the face of Thomas’ celebrity status. You’ll notice that I’m talking mostly about Isaac’s character, and that’s because he’s the heart and blackened soul of the film. Even when he’s not on screen, Thomas’ actions are a direct result of Jack invading his life.

Jack cleans himself up, trading in his hobo-chic for casual wear and a crew cut, until he eventually manages to steal a suit. Ah, how the wicked climb up the ladder in Tinseltown! There’s a lot that Monahan is trying to say about Hollywood, in addition to some vague anti-technology sentiments that don’t really add up, but the two things he manages to do better than anything are capturing Thomas’ paranoia, and giving him a reason to be paranoid in the form of Jack, a guy you almost want to catch up to Thomas because you just know that before he does him any harm, he’s going to talk his ear off since he fancies himself a villain. He most definitely is, but he’s such a goofy villain, too! During most of his time tailing Thomas and his girlfriend, he’s talking to a dog! And he keeps calling this dog “brother” as well! 

When the two finally manage to have their second sit-down, well over an hour into the movie, they talk about circumstances and relative truths, and the film finally gets as good as it was during the campfire. Real life crimes and how they could potentially be relayed to the police are re-contextualized as fictional narratives for these two storytellers to play with, and we finally get to see this villain in a position of vulnerability, only by this point it’s not necessarily something we want to see. We know we’re supposed to root for Thomas because he’s the protagonist and the more morally straightforward of the two (he’s still very much an asshole), but he’s so intense and serious that there’s almost a longing for more Oscar Isaac doing whatever the hell he’s been doing thus far.

Mojave is the kind of movie where one character represents Satan and his polar opposite represents Satan, while a third unrelated producer character is also a terrible human being who represents ultimate villainy, but it’s also fully aware of how ridiculous it is. Everyone’s evil, and selfish, and a backstabber of some sort, and Monahan’s disdain for all the characters and the people they represent is so blatantly obvious, because he makes no attempt to disguise it, nor should he. The film has no qualms about who or what it’s poking fun at, and by dropping this strange amalgam of weird ideas named Jack right into the middle of his world, Monahan is essentially setting it ablaze and laughing maniacally as it crumbles to the ground. The film has no overarching or important statements to make about creativity beyond Thomas’ internal struggle that isn’t really resolved, and it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the industry or the people who make movies. What Monahan does do is use that setting to let his creativity run amok without restraint or concern, ultimately forgoing any and all introspection in favour of violence and cynicism, just like Thomas at the campfire.

What do these people represent? What do their words really mean? What’s the underlying truth revealed by each of their actions? Don’t worry about it! They’ll probably tell you themselves by the time the credits roll, but in doing so, you’ll be able to understand the specific function of everything they do or say without giving it much thought, and the only thing you need to be concerned about is having a good time. The movie reads like a first draft, but not in a way that makes it feel amateur or poorly thought out. It feels unfiltered and untampered with, like a pure idea written down the moment it sprung directly out of the head of a man wandering the desert. In any other movie, that would be a bad thing. Here, it’s gold. Silly, cynical gold, and Oscar Isaac is the alchemist.