In While We're Young, Ben Stiller's character spends a decade working on a documentary he never finishes. Mojave reminds me of that documentary. Writer/director William Monahan's tortured-artist drama is a patchwork of moods, themes, genres, and styles guaranteed to turn the mildly curious into saucer-eyed rubberneckers. Unlike most disappointing films that contain moments of greatness, I'm doubt any one of the film's threads could have been spun into something better. Perhaps Monahan did us a favor by confining his wild, half-baked concepts to a single movie.
Mojave is weird, but never boring. Monahan blends The End of the Tour with The Hitcher, pitting an actor who looks like Heath Ledger's ghost against an actor doing an integrity-infused impression of Adam Sandler's character from The Ridiculous Six. And I can't be sure, but I may have watched a corrupted version of the movie: Mark Wahlberg doesn't really appear as a coked-up movie producer, does he? That's not really Walton Goggins playing his beleaguered attorney, is it?
More on that later.
Garrett Hedlund stars as Thomas, a hot, young director who just can't handle the millions, the French mistress, and the artistic freedom. Indeed, he opens the film by asking, "When you get what you want, what do you want?" Thomas seeks answers in the Mojave Desert. After wrecking his producing partner's jeep, he wanders as far into nowhere as possible before encountering Jack (Oscar Isaac), an odd drifter who apparently never returned his 1920s hobo costume after Halloween. The guys suss each other out over a campfire, both very conscious of Jack's rifle and the seven X's carved into its stock.
Jack is crazy, of course. He mumbles about the government and the Devil, and punctuates nearly every sentence with "brother". A struggle ensues, Thomas escapes, and another event propels him back into his version of regular life. Unfortunately, Jack follows him out of the desert and begins making vague power-plays involving Thomas' mistress, Milly (Louise Bourgoin), and his business partner, Norman (Wahlberg).
Mojave works best when Hedlund and Isaac sit across from each other, spouting philosophy and creating truly bizarre characters. I often found it difficult to figure out who was supposed to be who's id: it seems obvious that Monahan wants us to see Jack as the personification of evil. He could also be God, slapping some sense into an extremely privileged, allegedly talented artist who can't be happy unless he's unhappy. On the other side of the table, Jack sees Thomas as everything he wants to be: recognized for his talent and intellect, and accepted by other people. I'm not sure if there's a movie (or even a really short play) in these terrifically acted scenes, but the material and the performances offer stability in the face of Mojave's shaky vision and shifting-plates narrative.
Why is Wahlberg in this movie? I don't recall him having a single scene with Hedlund (their characters interact exclusively over the phone). Norman's only function is to break up the stalker drama with "funny" interstitials where he yells at underlings and whines about Chinese food and blowjobs. His character (and Goggins', too) could have been replaced by some quick expositional dialogue during the film's climax.
Monahan wrote the 2014 remake of The Gambler, in which Wahlberg starred, so maybe that's the connection. Also of note is that Hedlund and Isaac appeared together briefly in Inside Llewyn Davis. I don't know what, if anything, these bits of trivia have to do with the actual making of Mojave, but the movie definitely has the feeling of favors being called in on camera, and then being spliced together into a psychological thriller. Or a dark Hollywood comedy. Or something.