Mojave: A Movie So Bad It’s Fantastic
There exists a cinematic spectrum of movie goodness ranging from masterpiece (2001: A Space Odyssey) to pile of shit (The Martian), but there are a select few movies that are totally independent of said spectrum, movies that overturn all generally-held standards of good and bad, movies beyond good and evil, if you will. Mojave—put into very limited release last January and now out on video—is just such a movie.
I want to say it’s so bad it’s good—but to be fair, the acting, direction, and production quality are far from shoddy. Mojave’s perceived badness instead springs from its pseudo-literary dialogue, contrived situations, and overall pretentious attitude. But I say “perceived” because, as Shakespeare said, there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so—and if you just loosen up a little bit and leave the door of your mind somewhat ajar, Mojave is a movie that will creep right in and become a long-term houseguest.
One of the more embarrassing male types, both in fiction and in real life, is that of the literary macho man. Bookishness and brawn usually make a thoroughly unconvincing amalgamation.
It’s got a little of everything for everyone: the bleak but beautiful desert landscape, literary quotations up the wazoo, an exploration of the emptiness of Hollywood, a game of Russian roulette, and, best of all, it’s got Mark Wahlberg in Ugg boots.
The movie’s weakest and strongest point is its literary pretentiousness. William Monahan—best known as the screenwriter of The Departed—wrote the script and directed, and he definitely set himself up to face some serious charges of macho, literary posturing with Mojave.
One of the more embarrassing male types, both in fiction and in real life, is that of the literary macho man. Bookishness and brawn usually make a thoroughly unconvincing amalgamation. Hemingway was the first and last man to pull it off convincingly: the self-conscious world-weariness, the laconic lyricism, the extolling of the tragic beauty of violence, etc. For whatever reason, his admirers slash descendents just can’t keep from falling into the gutter of pretentious douchebaggery.
The movie Mojave presents us with two prime specimens of this selfsame pretentious douchebgaggery in the forms of Thomas, a young Hollywood big shot (still not sure if he is an actor or director or both) and Jack, a loquacious psychopath who haunts the desert. The two of them have a chance encounter in the Mojave, a couple acts of violence occur, Jack starts stalking Tom, and the climax takes place in, you guessed it, the Mojave, completing a circle of death.
Oscar Isaac—one of the most compelling actors out there today—chews up the scenery as Jack, a cold-blooded killer with a penchant for referencing the Bible, the Bard, T.E. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, and John Stuart Mill. The movie is worth watching for no other reason than him. If you haven’t seen Isaac in the genuinely great movie Inside Llewyn Davis and the quite good movie Ex Machina, go out and see those before Mojave. He’s in the new Star Wars movie, too.
Garrett Hedlund is considerably less compelling, but still serviceable, as the protagonist Tom. He goes out into the desert presumably because he’s bored with his luxury-ass life. Hard to sympathize with him in that respect—but presumably that’s part of the point of Mojave: the privileged position Tom finds himself in makes you half-root for Jack.
At the beginning of the film, just as a sign of how much Tom doesn’t give a fuck, he drives his jeep at high speed through the desert until he overturns it, leaves it there, and wanders off into the wilderness with a backpack and a gallon of water. He is the embodiment of modern male ennui—again, the kind of person one finds it hard to sympathize with. Yet most of us feel this very same ennui brought about by too many creature comforts and blurred social roles.
The conversations between the two men are either eye-rolling or a lot of fun, depending on your mindset and mood. Jack has a frat-dude way of addressing Tom as “brother” all the time, and the two verbally joust about manhood, artistry, and metaphysics. Like I said, if you’ve got a closed mind, Mojave’s gonna make you want to puke. But if you open yourself up to the campiness of it—a campiness that must have been intentional on William Monahan’s part—you’ll reap some major enjoyment from the movie.
The campiness can be fully appreciated if one simply imagines the characters and some of the dialogue switched to the opposite gender. Just picture a couple females sipping on gins and tonic in a lonely booth at a retro bar, locked in an existential game of wits, quoting Plath and Woolf and Aphra Behn, trying to wither each other with the sheer force of their penetrating, intellectual gazes.
The reason why you never see something like that in the world of cinema is that guys—both the male characters on screen and the real men behind the camera—can be quite full of themselves in a way and at a magnitude that women, thank God, seem to be incapable of reaching. Movies like Mojave help you realize that. It’s a kind of public service, in a way—the campiness of it helps us laugh at our own shortcomings.
At heart, Mojave is a meditation on man’s duality, and the two main characters are reflections of the same soul. This is hardly untrod ground, by the way (you may remember a little something called Fight Club), but the fine line between artist and madman, between worldly success and criminality, between passion and depravity is and will always be fertile ground.
Early on, Jack talks about how when Jesus went into the desert and was confronted by the devil, it was clearly a metaphor for the other sinful side of man’s nature. Kind of heavy-handedly, Mojave seems to be saying the same about Jack and Tom.
To further cement the fact that the two men are facets of the same soul, both men have typewriters. As everybody knows, the typewriter is the thinking man’s computer. It connotes a laudable Ludditism, a more physical, kind of brutal expression of literariness. Each push of the typewriter key is like the pressing of a trigger on a gun. It is also, incidentally, the sign of a wannabe literary macho man douchebag.
At the end of the film, we get a quick glimpse of a manuscript sitting in Jack’s trailer, next to a typewriter. Being a writer myself, whenever I see examples of literary output in the movies, I peel my eyes and try to make out its content and merit. As I watched, I was able to make out the first sentence of the psychopathic writer’s writing—and with a little internet research, I was able to determine that it is identical to William Monahan’s first novel.
Which leads me to believe that Mojave is a deeply autobiographical film masquerading as a straight-to-video thriller. The writer/director obviously identifies with the aspiring writer slash serial killer, in so many words and images saying that inside every psychopathic killer there lurks a frustrated artist and inside every frustrated artist there lurks a psychopathic killer.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. In any case, there are worse ways to kill an hour and thirty-three minutes than watching Mojave.