The tortured artist stands as one of the most iconic of human figures. Whether through an investigation of the senses or the intuitive and expressive embodiment of their craft, the artist unlocks secrets within and lays them bare for the rest of us, offering reflections that we might not be able to recognize or face without such exposure. To do this work exacts a toll on the artist, though — a pound of flesh, a psychic wound that fails to heal completely — which is why, in return, we romanticize these standard bearers. But something within us understands that artists must remain alone and apart from us — for their good and our own.
When Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) first appears in Mojave, we know nothing significant about him, other than the fact that he’s talking about his status as an artist. He tells us that he’s been around for years. Fame arrived early. He’s a movie star, but right away we realize that the excess of the job has taken ahold of him. He rises from bed, leaving behind a pretty young body, a spoil of war he’s been waging in the artistic trenches. And he goes off, riding into the desert with water and cheap whiskey, to face his demons.
Everything is so literal, brother, in the world of screenwriter-director William Monahan (Oscar-winning screenwriter for The Departed) out here in Mojave. Well, literal and, we soon discover, quite literary, too. Once Thomas wrecks his Jeep and wanders off, we wonder how long he will be able to survive; yet Thomas, for all his angst, never shows the kind of desperation that would lead us to believe that he’s got any doubts about life and living. No, he’s coming back.
Before he heads back, though, he encounters a figure (Oscar Isaac), seemingly from on high, out in the distance, wearing a long duster and a cowboy hat, looking like Roland, the last gunslinger from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. But this high-plains drifter, up close, is a real talker. Named Jack, he approaches Thomas’ camp and lays down his gun in an attempt to assuage the typical suspicions Thomas might have. He begins to prattle on, dropping literary quotes from Shakespeare, Hemingway and the Bible, of assumed importance. He’s an artist, too, creating his great work — himself — against the backdrop of the desert, history and mythology.
Thomas and Jack are opposite sides of the same coin, prime examples of the archetypes that Monahan loves, and that we have seen presented by the likes of David Fincher (Fight Club) and Michael Mann (Heat). Yet Monahan foregoes the heady existential grit of Fight Club and the noirish mystique of the match-up between De Niro and Pacino, focusing instead on the inherent evil, the core willingness to give into malignancy, in these two men.
They spar, briefly, out there in isolation, with Thomas gaining the upper hand for a moment. And then, an accident — otherwise known as the fickle finger of Fate — creates a secret that one will get to use against the other. The secret is death, the ability to kill and cover it up, and both men have great facility with such actions.
We watch them as they return from the desert to the illusory world of Hollywood and the dreams and stories that get told there, knowing that for all the movement and power plays in that realm, the final battle between Thomas and Jack can only take place where it all started. So we watch and wait.
Tedium sets in while watching Thomas in particular — it becomes apparent that he is not the dream artist made real, the tortured icon that we should revere, despite the fact that Hedlund swims in a pitch-black brooding pool, diving into waters that thicken into a viscous liquid always on the verge of sucking him under.
Isaac, on the other hand, has proven to be the artist of note, the one that convinces us to believe what he sees and feels. And brother, in Mojave, he seems to be following up on his seductive performance in Ex Machina, adding an additional touch of evil and menace to the equation. Is he the Devil?
That may be the literal question of the film, but the better query is whether or not Mojave would have been better served with a bit more figurative play in Monahan’s presentation. What if either Hedlund or Isaac had been asked to portray both characters, shadowboxing against themselves with the same stakes? Then we might have seen the tortured soul of one of these performers, and recognized the devil in the details, which were sadly missing here. (Opens Friday) (R) Grade: C