Ultra Art
by Nick Pinkerton

Dir. William Monahan, U.S., A24

While watching writer-director William Monahan’s head-trip two-hander Mojave, I found myself thinking, not without affection, of the manner in which John Waters designated Joseph Losey’s Boom! a “failed art film.”

The “failed” is relative—there are pleasures to be had in Mojave, but it doesn’t succeed in summoning up the pathos or menace or uncanny mystery that every cue of Andrew Hewitt’s score indicates it’s straining for. It’s as niche a production as you’ll see, bound to attract a handful of true believers and a good bit of eye-rolling opprobrium, in part because it is directly concerned with hetero white male angst, which is not precisely the flavor of the month. Inasmuch as it has a bid for reclamation, I suspect it will be as heterosexual camp.

The film’s protagonist, who appears alone in its first shot and last, is Thomas (Garrett Hedlund), a blonde Viking with a sculpturally mussed mane. In a taped interview prologue, Thomas makes mention of the fact that he has been famous for the whole of his adult life, and as the film proceeds we gradually ascertain that he is some kind of film industry luminary—a writer-director, or perhaps a movie star with literary pretensions, who keeps a vintage typewriter in one of his L.A. hideaways. At first, however, all that’s clear is that Thomas is a shambolic wreck. After waking up one morning to survey the property of a Hollywood Hills home that’s gone to seed, he grabs his camping gear, two bottles of vodka, two gallons of water, and lights out for the desert, where he promptly flips his jeep and sets off to wander the wastes on foot. It seems less a suicide attempt than some kind of self-realization ceremony, a bit like the episode of Silicon Valley where T. J. Miller goes on his hallucinogenic vision quest. While Thomas is hunkered down around his campfire one night, however, a stranger joins him uninvited and starts to talk about more exalted precedents, like Christ and the Devil in the desert. The stranger, Jack (Oscar Isaac), is a mendicant with a gold-toothed grin who wears an ankle-length duster and carries a repeating rifle, vaguely resembles Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and talks like someone who studied Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in university—as in fact Monahan did. “I’m into motiveless malignity,” Jack explains to Thomas, “I’m a Shakespeare man.”

Thomas gets the jump on Jack before his guest can pull any motiveless malignity, and Jack, once recovered, follows Thomas into Los Angeles, bringing a potentially ruinous secret of Thomas’s in tow. Once installed at the home of a gay art collector with unfortunate taste in rough trade, Jack follows Thomas everywhere, hovering over his shoulder at a performance of The Tempest in Max Cady style and generally sticking to his mark like a guilty conscience. In the interim, Thomas has discovered that Jack is responsible for a series of unsolved thrill-kills, and probably not someone to be taken lightly. The “guilty conscience” simile isn’t chosen at random, for as Jack suggests that Christ and the Devil were one and the same, so Thomas and Jack come to seem a single Janus-faced entity, both speaking very much in the voice of William Monahan, who has emptied his writer’s journal of quotations here. (At times their showdown seems closer to a book club meeting—I’ve always heard it’s hard to find people with literary interests in L.A.)

The flipping of a coin, not coincidentally, is crucial to the film’s climax, and were it not for scenes where Jack menaces Thomas’s girlfriend, Milly (Louise Bourgoin), and shows up unannounced and unrecognized at the doorstep of his business partner, Norman (Mark Wahlberg), you might even be tempted to believe that there was a Fight Club-esque split personality twist in the offing, a possibility that the screenplay teases at. “I don’t even know you exist,” Thomas hisses at his blackmailer during a mano-a-mano meeting at a swank bar that he owns an interest in, and the recurring references to that most famous monologist, Hamlet, only further the implication that Thomas is talking to himself. The choice of The Tempest as the play-within-the-film is also significant, and we may imagine that Jack is meant as a sort of Caliban to Thomas’s Prospero, their final commiseration over a drink the film’s “This thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine” moment.

At their first encounter, Jack dismisses the business of Ahab’s missing leg in Moby Dick as a “story conference” compromise, and the better part of Mojave consists of he and Thomas competing to put over their different drafts of what exactly happened between the two of them in the desert. Too vitiated for satirical zing, much of this comes off as half-baked philosophy, though I will say that I prefer Monahan’s footnote-jammed, bookish ruminations to, say, the endless, sonorous metaphysical dither of Christopher Nolan. On the fringes of Mojave’s central storyline, at any rate, there is an incisive look at the particular masculine neuroses of the movie colony, many of these connected to an anxious relationship with “authenticity.” Wahlberg, who had one of his best roles in the Monahan-scripted The Departed and, like his director, trades heavily on his Boston street cred, plays a louche and venal producer who won’t cut back on call girls even as his personal finances unravel; in one stressful moment he is seen bursting onto his second-story veranda in Uggs and a bathrobe to announce to all the world that he still owns half a clam shack back home, his last tenuous grip on his roots. (It’s the scene that was missing from the Entourage movie.) Thomas’s look is designer tough-guy from head to toe, a macho who’ll go to extraordinary lengths to prove the money hasn’t made him soft, and Jack spends a goodly amount of time finding chinks in his hard-living two-fisted creative façade, at one point asking point-blank: “Are you still in touch with anybody not useful?”

Isaac is able to invest a line like this with an incisive twist with his gimlet-eyed staredown, but when Hedlund hits back with “It’s not my fault that I can do things as an artist you can’t,” it’s hard to fight off the gigglesand flashbacks to his spacey, self-impressed beatnik lug in Inside Llewyn Davis, played for comic relief opposite Isaac’s crabbed, miserable. Here, as in Walter Salles’s On the Road, where he played Kerouac’s muse Dean Moriarty, Hedlund has been cast as a wildman poet with the proportions of a milk-fed quarterback—“a man in full” as Jack refers to him in awe—but though he fits the bill physically, he’s yet to show the necessary flash of dangerous, wily intelligence, or the vulnerability that might put the outcome of Mojave’s showdown in doubt. Though his industrious agents have been trying to break Hedlund for better than a decade, I’m not at all convinced he’s destined for anything better than a Josh Hartnett/Josh Duhamel-grade career.

The inducements to stick with Mojave, then, are a few breathless outbursts from Wahlberg; Walton Goggins, cast amusingly against type as Thomas’s elegantly turned out and overtanned agent; and Isaac, who ambles into the movie like some Ren Faire hesher, tagging the end of every other sentence with an obligatory grumble of “Brother.” Isaac here continues working his sideline of livening up tony, ultra-art directed genre films distributed by A24—see for reference Ex Machina, with Isaac’s serenely confident tech bro-as-supervillain. No less than the Hollywood crowd that he finds himself mixing with, Jack is defined by his own niggling insecurity—he’s the preening autodidact who read everything in the reform school library, knows just enough to be dangerous, and is dangerous because he’s outraged by the thought of what the successful people know and that he never will. His patter sets the tone for Mojave, which will inevitably be slagged for being “pretentious” by reviewers who tend to forget that a great deal of what we today consider classic noir is steeped in malevolent pseudo-philosophy—anyone seen Alias Nick Beal lately? All of which isn’t meant to overstate the case for Monahan’s movie—the world doesn’t need another The Counselor—but to say that once its revels are ended, it’s made a fine mess of things.