‘Who is the real sociopath here, me or you?’ asks serial killer Jack (Oscar Isaac) to Hollywood screenwriter Tom (Garrett Hedlund) in William Monahan’s directorial debut; an Oscar winner for The Departed, Monahan’s film feels like a spec script updated to an industry where, for one brief shining moment in his life, a writer can call the shots. The result is a film that vanished on initial release, and pops up on Prime in 2022 to ensnare the curious. While hard-boiled and deliberately alienating, Mojave is also as tough and uncompromising as the desert from which it takes its name.
Tom is introduced drifting in the desert; he’s flipped his car, and meets cute with another drifter around an isolated campfire; the dishevelled Jack, who Tom quickly identifies as ‘the devil’. Tom steals Jack’s rifle, understandably given the latent threat of their intense dog-eat-dog situation. But as he escapes, Tom ends up accidentally killing an inquiring cop with the same rifle, and whatever guilt he feels is embodied in a physical threat when Jack shaves his head and follows him back to Hollywood…
Mark Wahlberg, whose career was revived by his way with Monahan’s dialogue in The Departed, has an extended cameo here as a producer with a confidante in Walton Goggins and a penchant for drugs and prostitutes, or ‘sex workers’ as one of the cops who interrogate Jack rephrases it. The view of Hollywood, from Kings Road downwards, is a cynical, caustic and nihilistic one; Jack’s got a point when he confronts Tom in a snooty LA bar. Jack is evil personified, and Isaac is game for the task, but he also sees Tom’s weakness as a means through which he can gain leverage. But as dangerous as the devil is, he meets his match in Tom, who embodies the worst sense of male self-regard that comes with the Laurel Canyon mind-set.
‘In a negotiation, never be the first to mention a number,’ is one of a number of pithy lines here; Monahan seems to be enjoying the freedom to capture bleak nihilism. Yet Mojave is a tight 90 minutes, with tension but also restraint; Jack adopts the dog of one of his victims, and the audience will fear the worst for the cute pooch, but rest assured that the dog emerges unscathed, even if the punch-line is still morally gnarly. We’re looking at a long wallow in existential guilt, in a vintage Paul Schrader style, and with a soup of testosterone simmering on a low gas, Mojave is an unfairly neglected film that should work the room for hardened film noir fans.