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'Mojave': At Least The Desert Is Good-Looking

Oscar Isaac plays a drifter named Jack in the new film <em>Mojave</em>.
Oscar Isaac plays a drifter named Jack in the new film Mojave.

In the insufferably arch neo-noir Western Mojave, Garrett Hedlund — a vision in sexy boots, artfully disheveled tresses and a morose green gaze — ventures into the desert, there to brood on his depraved, deprived life as a Hollywood director of note. Having crashed his car, Thomas lights a fire, but further brooding is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger named Jack. We know Jack does not mean well because he is unwashed, hirsute, sorely in need of cosmetic dentistry and played in overdrive by Oscar Isaac.

Also, he never shuts up. Jack has an unspecified beef with Thomas, though hulking great hints are dropped that he may be, you know, a fiction issuing from Thomas' dark side. All attempts at a light side hit the dirt with a heavily underlined thud. Mostly, Jack's flights of bombast are there to assure us that writer-director William Monahan, who also wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese's The Departed, knows his way around the literary canon. Among the none too obliquely dropped names I counted were Melville (Herman, not Jean-Pierre), Lawrence (T.E., not D.H.), and George Bernard Shaw (or "Shaw," for those of us willing to be flattered that we, too, are in the know). Crowning the ambience of erudition is a cryptic note left in French. Less tangentially, there's also the Bible, with copious references to Jesus and the Devil; Jack appears alarmingly uncertain which one he is, but not to worry. There's always Shakespeare: Jack's mother married his uncle, and her son drew the short straw, he tells Thomas bitterly, multiply, and without noticeable relevance to theme or plot.

Well, anyway, to be or not to be and all that. By way of plot, Jack goads Thomas into inappropriate gun use, because it's time. An innocent bystander is murdered, which improves Thomas' bleak mood not a jot. Lacking all other motive, he hightails it home to Hollywood, with Jack in hot stalking pursuit while pausing to perform acts of gratuitous violence on the undeserving. There we learn more about Jack's arid existence and his association with the usual array of derivative lowlifes (Mark Wahlberg, lethargically whoring, drinking and drugging in his bathrobe) who are thought to litter the town of tinsel. Never mind that sparkling water is the libation of choice in Hollywood, which typically goes to bed at 9 p.m. and rises at dawn to plunder emerging global markets. Does the lowlife deserve a sticky end? He might, "because he's a producer."

At this point Monahan seems to grow tired of the noir thing, if not of the shooting and clobbering. Having shown himself willing to absorb all manner of indignities for the good of his guilty soul, Thomas rears up at the mere mention of threat to the family he has serially betrayed, and morphs first into an avenging angel, and then, as befits a man so widely read, an ace teller of bedtime stories.

On the plus side, the Mojave desert looks mighty handsome, and I really liked the twangy guitar.

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.