But what about the meaninglessness of everything? William Monahan's Mojave is one of those '90s-style chatty-killer movies, mixed with one of those '90s-style guns-in-the-desert existential cheapies, the kind of picture where good-looking dudes shooting each other is passed off as elemental and beautiful rather than just what it actually is — the only thing Hollywood can think of for good-looking dudes to do together onscreen. Yes, there's a silver-bullet Airstream trailer parked next to a rusted-out bus, and yes, toward the end, one character douses a desert abode in lighter fluid. You can tell early on that the worst thing that can happen in a movie will at some point happen: A talkative fellow, prepping to kill a taciturn fellow, asks, “Do you believe in the duality of man?”
It's hard to tell which answer to root for — which would speed along the execution? That query follows all these, each posed by a possibly imaginary character played by Oscar Isaac: “So which one of us is a sociopath, brother?” “Do you know yet which one of us is the bad guy?” Mojave is like one of those hundred-question personality tests big-box stores force upon prospective hires, finding 12 different ways to ask whether it's ever morally justified to steal — one of these times it's bound to get us to respond.
It doesn't, of course. The wisp of a story concerns a pampered Hollywood type (Garrett Hedlund, playing a film director) striking out into the Mojave Desert to find something that's actually in himself, only to be chased from ridge to valley to civilization by a relentless villain (Isaac) whose motivations seem existential or infernal, which is a nice way of saying that it's apparently supposed to be significant that said motivations make no sense. The good news: As shot by Don Davis, the desert sequences have a vast unsettling scope, with Hedlund's character — he's named Thomas, if it matters — dwarfed by those grand wastes. The occasional shot of of Isaac, a mere silhouette in distant pursuit, suggests a more chilling film than will follow. Most of the time, when Isaac's character — he's Jack — catches up, the men have a seat and get to gabbing. “I don't even know if you exist as I understand existence,” Thomas will muse to Jack, your sign as an audience member that this is a good time to sneak out to the restroom.
If the film is about anything, it's about its creator's interest in trying out all the things that he presumably has not been able to get away with in other films. Monahan, the writer and director, is best known for the Oscar-winning script for Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which might explain why Mark Wahlberg wanders through a couple scenes as a crass Hollywood producer — it's probably hilarious if you know the guy he's lampooning. The Departed's screenplay was as tight and cutting as barbed wire; Mojave's is as loose as the band of your uncle's most beloved sweatpants. (It also lacks the cutting cleverness of Monahan's 2000 novel, Light House: A Trifle.) Isaac's Jack gasses on and on, critiquing Moby-Dick, garbling bits of Hamlet, hinting he's Lucifer or maybe Jesus, claiming “I fall upon travelers” but also “I'm just fucking with your head!”
Isaac's charm and wit elevate some of this talk, but he's not magic. Early on, villain must ask hero to identify himself. “No one in particular,” Thomas says. Jack replies, “Anybody in general?” and then twinkles like he's gotten off a good one rather than he's the grand marshal of some Hobbit riddle party. Isaac begins and ends so many sentences with “brother” that he unintentionally suggests Hulk Hogan — even before he has to say “Game on, brother!” to kick off the third act. That teaser is followed by a fadeout where TBS could easily slot in a commercial break; the dialogue might be baggy, but Mojave itself isn't daring in construction — it has a reliably familiar structure of three half-hour acts and some symmetry of opening and closing. There's just no reason in the story for that symmetry, or for those act breaks.
Isaac's character wills the plot along, chasing Hedlund's from the desert to the Hollywood Hills, and then demanding they full-circle back to the desert again because “This has to play out.” Throughout the film characters bristle at notes from producers, so Mojave plays like an inside-joke Seven Psychopaths, possibly a parody of the suggestions a screenwriter might get from dumb people with power. Perhaps Isaac here is both villain and a gag about some exec's underbaked idea of a villain. Is Mojave's twisty purposelessness showing how producers ruin the work of screenwriters, or is it evidence that screenwriters often need another set of eyes?