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Mojave (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"There's life under the dry surface."
4 stars

William Monahan's new film is right on the line between the crime movies where the filmmakers are aware of the genre's tropes and can therefore share a wink as it uses or avoids them and the movies which spend so much time examining their own archetypes that they neglect their own stories. It would probably take only the smallest of pushes for "Mojave" to end up on the wrong side of that line, and it may wind up that way for some; for the rest, it should work nicely as a compact bit of Hollywood crime.

Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) is a creature of Hollywood, both as a motion picture director and as a guy famous and powerful enough to be frustratingly erratic. He takes a drive out into the desert and wrecks his car, although he's resourceful enough to make his way back out. On the way, he bumps into Jack (Oscar Isaac), an apparent drifter with a rifle who likes his Shakespeare and is probably just as dangerous as he seems. Thomas gets away, and is soon back to business as usual with his producer (Mark Wahlberg), agent (Walton Goggins), and star/mistress (Louise Bourgoin), but he's become a loose end for Jack, who is just as intelligent as he is crazy.

Monahan pursued scholarly and satirical writing before winding up in the movie business, and as such has probably placed more of himself in Jack, the nominal antagonist, than any other character. Jack's a smart guy, well-read in the classics and philosophy, and as such both an odd fit for the movie world but also capable of moving through it like a hungry shark when he gets acclimated. There's a sense throughout of there being riches there for the taken unless things are derailed by the odd, amoral people who live there, so wrapped up in their own highly-specific struggles that they don't think much about actual physical danger when it appears. Monahan uses Jack to present what is likely his own point of view, someone able to navigate Hollywood despite not still being of it, not blind to the decay around him.

As such, it's not surprising when Jack asks Thomas toward the end of the film whether he's figured out which one of them is the bad guy yet. That's the moment where Monahan most clearly veers toward "hey, we're making a movie about movies here", although Jack's established as peculiar enough by that point that it's not entirely a break of the fourth wall. It's fun to watch Monahan build the picture around familiar movie ideas, like the Hollywood types and the loquacious assassin, although perhaps the best comes early on, in the event that the rest of the film pivots on: Thomas seeing a silhouetted figure at the entrance to the cave in which he has taken shelter that falls away when he takes a shot. Monahan and cinematographer Don Davis present it as a creation of light and shadow, and there's something almost unreal about the fall, like a silent pantomime that cannot be how a person actually moves despite its real consequences. Those are the moments that can seem too clever for the film's own good, but which are executed just well enough to intrigue.

As to which of them is the bad guy? Well, obviously, that's a trick question - do you throw in with the ruthless killer who nevertheless seems to have some amount of humility and wit, or the self-centered creep who looks down above everyone? They're both bad guys, and as such wind up meaty roles for both actors. Oscar Isaac gets the showier, more entertaining role; Jack's a charming monster who undergoes a metamorphosis as he enters the city, becoming a sleeker, more dangerous version of himself, hinting that his most dangerous trait is his ability to adapt. Isaac gets most of the best lines and sells them with relish, keeping his killer tough to read but still engrossing.

Garrett Hedlund, meanwhile, gets a less endearing character even if Thomas initially seems less of a maniac. There's a different sort of focus to his performance, though, a conflict between being self-destructive and being a survivor. When he puts himself in bad situations, he seems almost eager to tear his way out. He's calculating without a whole lot of style, and any sympathy he gets from the audience is handed out grudgingly. Hedlund makes Thomas seem to empty to actually be Jack's equal, even as it slowly becomes clear that this emptiness might be his greatest advantage.

Though it's mainly a two-person show, the pair is separate for the middle of the film, although Hedlund is given a great supporting cast to work with: Mark Wahlberg and Walton Goggins are different sorts of disconnected as a producer and an agent, while Louise Bourgoin gives a character who would often be an ingenue plenty of ego. Fran Kranz, a Thomas's assistant, often seems like the sanest one in the movie because he actually recognizes danger. Isaac, on the other hand, spends a lot of time talking to a dog, but it's a great little dog.

All of this probably makes "Mojave" a little bit of an acquired taste - the jokes are sort of inside, few characters are likable, the larger crime is off to the side. For some fans of crime movies, that will be part of the charm, and even if that sort of self-reference isn't one's thing, there are still enough good bits to make it worthwhile.

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originally posted: 02/01/16 05:46:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2015 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

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