Written By: Maria Leia
There have been a lot of actors that have floundered despite showing early promise, never achieving the full range of their talent despite a number of quietly stellar performances. Oscar Isaac, after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, seems to have broken out of that bubble and might have moved from being a familiar face into true movie star material. Which is why his next released film, Mojave, is so important and hopefully won’t derail a career that is primed to take off.
Though William Monahan is an Oscar-winning screenwriter for The Departed, this is only his sophomore directing effort, five years after London Boulevard which he also wrote/directed. Mojave – produced by A24 Films and DirecTV – is the story of Thomas (Garrett Hedlund), a former child star in the middle of an existential crisis who goes out to the desert for reasons unknown. While there he meets gun-toting serial killer Jack (Oscar Isaac) and they begin a game of cat and mouse after Thomas accidentally murders a man and Jack witnesses it. Jack stalks Thomas back to Hollywood and they both show off their classical educations.
Both Hedlund and Isaac do phenomenal jobs with what they are given, delivering performances that are both menacing and calculating. There is no question that both of these actors are giving their all to each scene, bouncing the lines back and forth like a Wimbledon match. It’s the kind of delivery that viewers weaned on the rapid fire exchanges of the 1930s and 40s will appreciate. Even the pauses are laden with subtext that requires a natural gift for subtlety rare to see on screen with one actor, let alone two.
That being said, there is only so much that can be done with a script so overwritten. Monahan was better limited by the townie sensibilities of The Departed because given the freedom to develop any sort of background he wants for the characters, he has decided to make both pretentious while trying to convince the audience that it’s wit. In love with his own prose, Monahan has his characters trading book quotes back and forth while citing the source, just to make sure that the audience knows that there was a literary allusion there.
One gets the impression that this was supposed to make the characters seem that much more clever and cunning. However, in reality, it makes them seem like they have a shallow imitation of education, capable of memorizing quotes and just eloquent enough to turn a conversation so that the references they practiced are relevant. Rather than couch its philosophy in dialogue natural to the scene–like True Detective, for example–it twists scenes to make Monahan’s somewhat tired points about Hollywood culture and life in general.
While Isaac does an excellent job with the performance, it is despite having to fight a number of factors against him. Most notably is the pretentious dialogue which manages to squash his natural charisma – a trait that made his villainous characters in films like Ex Machina or even Sucker Punch compelling. Here we are left without a likable character: just two people who are arguably equally evil and don’t much care what happens next.
Oddly, Monahan does with the cinematography what he refuses to do with the actors, employing long shots to set the scenes and give us a real sense of the world we’re inhabiting. While his penchant for shooting in the dark can become wearing over time, it’s hard to claim that the man can’t frame a workable shot.
Mojave will probably slip under the radar and be quickly forgotten, allowing Isaac to build a career on the boost in popularity that he will no doubt get from Star Wars. However, it might just be worth the watch to see two great actors on the cusp of greatness struggle not to drown under the weight of a sea of faux philosophy.
Photo credit: Mojave, A24