With Mojave, director William Monahan offers audiences a bundle of fetishes dressed up as an existentialist thriller about the class system. It’s a genre film in which nothing happening is meant to signify a transcendence over the limitations of genre, which is to say that it’s the worst kind of self-deceiving prattle. Monahan tips his hand early on, when Jack (Oscar Isaac) says to Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) that he believes in “motiveless malignity.” That line is intended as Monahan’s get-out-of-jail-free card, as his justification for indulging hip posturing in place of anything else.
It’s instantly apparent that Thomas is a typical Hedlund character—one so intensely in love with his own coolness as to be simultaneously dull and laughable. He’s a filmmaker who drives out to the Mojave to get loaded and embark on a vision quest, until Jack interrupts his midnight reverie, bloviating at length about Jesus, T.E. Lawrence, and Shaw—anything to signify that Monahan has read the right things. Jack professes that Captain Ahab’s wooden leg phonily explained him, while Thomas mumbles over his fire and accuses Jack of playing Satan. Near the end of the film, after much strutting, one of them mentions the grand adventure of “death and its raven wing.”
This macho, faux-erudite dirge encourages one to scrutinize the characters’ fashions as means of aesthetic stimulation and distraction. The dark-complexioned Jack initially wears his hair and beard long, clad in bandana and loose, quasi-Native American clothing that intentionally fosters his resemblance to 1970s-era Bob Dylan or Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Thomas is a lighter-skinned blonde with a wiry frame, tight T-shirt, leather jacket, chic sunglasses, and perfectly cultivated facial hair that telegraphs a pampered dude’s fake preoccupation with wildness, suggesting what might happen if Chris Hemsworth mistook himself for Wild Bill Hickock. Eventually, Jack shakes things up, cutting his hair and suiting himself up in an all-black wardrobe that serves as an obvious parody of affluent studio executives.
Playing at rebellion and disillusion, these men adopt gestures that are so derivative and irreverent as to be quaint, most annoyingly their mutual insistence on punctuating every line with the word “brother” in a feint toward earthy humility or in contemptuously ironic quote-marking of the same. It can be argued that Monahan is deliberately satirizing Thomas and Jack’s stifling self-glorification, but to what end? And that impression is diminished by the men’s authentic, inexplicable handiness. Both are good with a variety of weapons, and, despite their differing positions on the social ladder, both understand just what a corrupt landscape of lies it is in which we all live.
Mojave is a rich writer’s dream of artistic manly relevance, of decadence that signifies boredom with decadence. Monahan often lingers on shots of analogue things that revel in a longing to keep it real in a fake digital world: of wooden tables and real typewriters, of bullets, of glass cups of half-consumed wine left from the night before on gorgeous hand-crafted staircases. A pool in the Hollywood Hills is cast in perfect autumnal hues, palm leaves dying in its water. International women signifying an ideal mixture of class and sex are seen in the usual varying stages of undress, uttering nothings about their man’s troubled ghostliness. At one point, Thomas checks into a hotel resembling the Chateau Marmont, and he’s so damn rugged that he leaves the key in the door to his penthouse so that it remains ajar, revealing him as he suffers prettily while taking in the glorious California view from his balcony. Then, because he’s sensitive and tortured, he watches Greed on TV while sipping from yet another wine bottle.
Monahan seems to be striving for his version of The Limey, in which a faded counterculture is shown to be a hypocritical illusion eating itself alive via doppelgangers. Or, perhaps, he’s portraying a new generation’s fraudulent approximation of that dead culture. Either way, Mojave doesn’t add up to anything. The Limey’s stars were actual counterculture figures who knew the turf casually without having to play at it, and director Steven Soderbergh’s cubist formalism only intensified the film’s resonant sense of self-cannibalism. Hedlund and Isaac embarrass themselves doing karaoke impressions of glamorous alienation, while Monahan embalms them in stilted formalities that suggest a prospectus for a potential art-film manual along the lines of Desert Ennui for Dummies.