Pablo Picasso once said that good artists copy but greatest artists steal. Mojave‘s opening moments see noted filmmaker Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) sit in the squared off aspect ratio of an interview. Comparisons are made to Lord Byron and fame from the age of nineteen is bemoaned. Highly pretentious beginnings capture the entirety of writer-director William Monahan’s sophomore attempt behind the camera in a nutshell. An awful lot of very big ideas, elaborate rhetoric and name-dropping of cultural luminaries attempt to elevate an old-fashioned game of cat and mouse to a higher plain but are lost in the mire. With aspirations a long way above its station the whole endeavour is soon caught in quicksand before going under completely.
Opening out to widescreen glory cinematographer Don Davis takes full advantage of the titular desert’s stunning vistas. Thomas sets off to find himself by going off map in the arid vastness of the Mojave and howl at the moon with wolves. A well known chap from the Bible made good use of spending some time in the wilderness but things go awry for Thomas as he (purposefully?) wrecks his jeep and a mysterious gold-toothed drifter, Jack (Oscar Isaac), crashes his campfire party. Proud of his IQ and making mention of Bill Shakespeare and T. E. Lawrence, Jack claims to be all about “motiveless malignity.” Isaac’s eloquent, gravelly low growl affronts Hedlund’s bad-boy coiled rage and the two angry men go at it on a physical and intellectual level.
The mistaken shooting of a ranger sees the action move back to Los Angeles and, as Jack says, it’s “Game on, brother.” Why are the pair so intent on killing each other you ask? Well, blackmail, that’s why. After the subdued brilliance of Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year it’s good to see Isaac let loose with a kind of Dennis Hopper-esque mania but that schtick soon wears thin in a laborious downhill struggle which splutters through the low gears. How has Jack remained such a hidden gem of murderous underachieving genius? Why is Thomas such a renowned director? No idea. In a thriller as much about one-upmanship as it is actual tension, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Bernard Shaw are further additions to a list of literary icons turning in their graves. Channeling ghosts of Dirk Digglers past, Mark Wahlberg appears to have purchased the set of Boogie Nights as a cocaine-snorting producer who consistently curses at the top of his lungs, wears man Ugg boots and lounges about his palatial home in a housecoat eating Chinese food with prostitutes. That just about sums it up. Monahan won a Best Screenplay gong for The Departed in 2006 but needs to go back to the drawing board having completely missed the mark with Mojave.