A burnt-out movie star and a violent drifter play a cat-and-mouse game that extends from the desert to the Hollywood Hills in “Mojave,” the second feature by William Monahan (“London Boulevard”), the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Departed.” Premise aside, however, the word “thriller” doesn’t apply to this comically affected piece of genre deconstruction, which seeks to re-create the existential drift of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” and Cormac McCarthy, but winds up hacking on their secondhand smoke. Pegged to a deeply unappealing performance by Garrett Hedlund, whose scuzzball chic recalls Mickey Rourke in his lean years, it’s the type of movie where two adversaries pause their fight-to-the-death to correct a George Bernard Shaw quote. Following a seven-week VOD run on DirecTV, the pic’s theatrical life stands to be mercifully brief.
“I’ve been famous in one way or another since I was 19,” mopes Tom (Hedlund) in the voiceover, accounting for the hollow lifestyle that has led him to self-imposed exile in the California desert. Back home, Tom’s wife and daughter have flown to Europe for an indefinite stay, and his crumbling estate reflects his state of mind better than he could ever articulate. (Though he certainly tries.) Speeding through the desert flats on Modelo and a fifth of vodka, Tom flips his jeeps, but walks away unharmed and with enough supplies to make it back to civilization. But before he does, he encounters Jack (Oscar Isaac), a black-maned stranger who strolls into his camp with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a “Crocodile Dundee” blade in a holster around his waist.
Despite their mutual familiarity with the classics of Western literature — Ahab’s leg is debated, along with the works of Shakespeare — the conversation between Tom and Jack does not end well, and things get worse later when Jack witnesses Tom accidentally gun down a police officer. Tom finds his way back to Hollywood, where his French mistress (Louise Bourgoin) awaits him, along with his no-nonsense agent (Walton Goggins) and a producing partner (Mark Wahlberg) who’s perpetually flanked by prostitutes. But with hair shorn and a better wardrobe, Jack emerges from the shadows to torment and murder his adversary, leading to a showdown that presages violence with more talk about morality and the life of an artist.
Monahan plots “Mojave” simply: Tom and Jack want to kill each other and the movie will end when one of them succeeds. So in effect, the film is a gnawing exercise in delayed gratification, with Monahan kicking the inevitable confrontation down the road in order to give a fuller sense of Jack’s mischief making and Tom’s existential malaise. That means following type-written coordinates to the perfect setting and a big, fateful moment that determined by both Russian roulette and the flipping of a gold coin. The film goes out of its way to undermine its own stalker-thriller premise.
This is all by design, of course. Monahan isn’t required to satisfy bloodlust or to pay off conventional plot points, even if his screenplay for “The Departed” displayed an abundant talent for doing so. But he assumes too much in believing that the audience will connect in any way with a sour, prickly narcissist who’s trapped in the gilded cage of wealth and fame. Isaac’s irrepressible energy, so crucial to varying the tone of last year’s terrific sci-fi sleeper “Ex Machina,” gives “Mojave” a lift when he’s on screen, but Jack feels less a real character than a literary construct intended to define the hero more clearly.
Tech credits are a notch or two above the material, with d.p. Don Davis making the most of the desert’s potential for dramatic Western silhouettes and towering rock formations, and production designer Robb Buono turning Tom’s estate into a vision of unkempt privilege out of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” The robust strings in Andrew Hewitt’s score anticipate a thriller that never quite transpires.