Nothing good ever happens in the desert at night. I don’t know if that is a saying or not, but a lifetime spent watching movies has made this more than abundantly clear. In Mojave, the latest film from The Gambler and The Departed scribe William Monahan, a suicide artist searching for himself in the middle of nowhere encounters his doppelgänger, a homicidal drifter with a penchant for saying “Brother” at every opportunity. To make matters worse, he also accidentally kills someone, and the only person who saw him do it is the last person he ever wants to see again.
All of the components needed for a great dramatic thriller are present in Mojave, but their execution feels more like someone checking off boxes on a “must have” list than the completed vision of a talented storyteller such as Monahan. You have your frustrated protagonist in search of greater meaning, as well as the mysterious stranger who clearly knows more than they are letting on. You have a Hitchcock-inspired meeting of minds to set things into motion, as well as a Fincher-like use of negative space to further emphasize the growing distance between characters and regular life. There are also strong performances from everyone involved, especially the turns of Oscar Isaac and supporting player Walton Goggins. All of this and more is available in Mojave, but as good as any one piece may be on its own there is never a point when everything comes together in a meaningful way. The result of this is a story that leaves you frustrated, regardless of your concern for the wellbeing of the central players.
Monahan’s reputation as a screenwriter is never up for debate, but Mojave marks only second time the silver screen veteran has donned the title of director. One would think his deep connection to the script would benefit his work behind the camera, but the results claim otherwise. The film looks like an action-adventure one minute and an introverted tale of frustrated creativity the next, with little to no effort made to transition between the two. That responsibility is left up to the talent who, though unquestionably skilled, vary greatly in their ability to adapt to changing moods. Isaac is the best of the bunch, delivering a slyly twisted take on the murderous-drifter trope. His performance is so good that it makes his co-star, Garrett Hedlund, look like a total amateur by comparison. Considering Hedlund’s character is meant to be a former child star turned apathetic leading man, this is not something that helps sell the story.
What frustrates me most about Mojave is that there is no clear reason why the movie falls flat. Every component needed to create a tense thriller is here, and it is being overseen by one of the greatest screenwriters of the 21st century, but for reasons that elude me even days after viewing the film the pieces never come together in any meaningful way. The final sequences come and go with such disregard for the viewer’s enjoyment that you might find yourself overcome with the urge to grunt in protest when the credits finally begin to roll. The story is completed, or at least as complete is it can be given the events that transpire, but to what end? As far as I can tell, the answer is nothing. It all amounts to nothing and you’re left with the painful realization that you have just wasted 90 minutes that could have been better spent with almost any other film featuring someone in this movie. It’s a swing and a miss for practically everyone involved, and I think we would all be wise to forget it even exists.