Thursday, January 21, 2016

Devil with a Gold Tooth: "Mojave" has tension but it's full of hot air

Mojave (2016)
93 min., rated R.

Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan ("The Departed," "Body of Lies," "The Gambler") makes his writing-directing follow-up to 2011's "London Boulevard" with "Mojave," a black-hearted yarn about the duality of man, or maybe that's being too generous. Monahan must have thought he was making something high-minded, as he seems to be a lover of erudite dialogue like Quentin Tarantino. Wordy indulgence is one thing, but this comes out to be overwritten, underdeveloped and emotionally lacking twaddle. As a mano-a-mano two-hander, there is some friction and tension from the onset but little driving force and no rhyme or reason.

Following the wreck of his jeep in the Mojave Desert, Hollywood screenwriter Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) has a late-night encounter by his fire with a gold-toothed drifter named Jack (Oscar Isaac). The stranger doesn't hide that he could be a serial killer and then waxes philosophical, literary and biblical until Thomas knocks him out and steals his lever-action rifle. On his way out of the desert, Thomas commits an accidental crime that Jack witnesses and holds against him. While Thomas gets back to Los Angeles and stays with his French actress mistress Milly (Louise Bourgoin), Jack secretly makes his way into the screenwriter's life, breaking into his Hollywood Hills mansion and eventually making him look like the sociopath.

Like a serious, more violent Road Runner & Coyote cartoon, "Mojave" is a wannabe thinking man's thriller that adds up to nil. It could have gone in a number of interesting directions, whether it be by way of "The Hitcher" as a desert-set power play or "Fight Club" with a similar alter-ego dynamic. There is some nourish fun in waiting to see these two men confront one another, but Thomas and Jack are too thin as characters and feel more like voice boxes for writer-director William Monahan's literary pretensions. The story barely sets up stakes with Thomas having a wife and daughter in England, but it does picks up steam once Jack actually gets to Hollywood and pretends to "be" Thomas.

Though there is more to the actor than just scruffy James Dean looks, Garett Hedlund broods and spends most of the film smoking, making it a chore to muster up too much empathy for his Thomas, who has the gall to compare himself to Lord Byron and Ernest Hemingway. Oscar Isaac chews up the scenery, basically playing Robert De Niro's Max Cady in "Cape Fear" as the shiftless, unpredictable Jack who calls everyone "brother." It's Isaac's showiest performance, but the enigmatic role ultimately seems like a total waste of his abilities. Walton Goggins and Mark Wahlberg phone in amusingly colorful but pretty one-dimensional day-player roles, sometimes literally, as Thomas' agent Jim and producer Norman, respectively. With the talent attached, "Mojave" probably should have been a wider release than it is, but there's not too much more to say about this low-wattage misfire when one can't even come up with a point for any of it.


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