‘Mojave’
Director:
William Monahan
Stars: Garrett Hedlund, Oscar Isaac
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

As a straight-ahead thriller you follow for its plot, William Monahan’s “Mojave” is a nonsensical wash. As a depository for the filmmaker’s cutting insults and yen of sour sarcasm, it’s (sometimes) good, nasty fun. Monahan won an Oscar for writing Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” but the two films he’s directed — the other is 2010’s “London Boulevard” — are nowhere near as polished, and are prone to letting narrative and even logic go slack. “Mojave” especially feels like a lark: a filmmaker working through his macho pretensions and his inability to take things seriously. Characters may bandy about heavy terms like “motiveless malignity” (!!), but there’s a strong chance even that’s a joke.

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You might not detect a sense of humor by looking at its anti-hero. Garrett Hedlund never cracks a grin as Thomas, a brooding Hollywood player of some sort who — suffering some kind of manly existential crisis — drives out to the desert with an arsenal of Modelo, ready to taunt some coyotes into tearing him apart. Instead he finds Oscar Isaac’s Jack, a mysterious drifter with gnarly hair and a tendency to abuse the word “brother” more than all the he-man troops in “13 Hours” combined. One thing leads to another and soon, Thomas has accidentally shot a cop. He flees, but Jack decides to track him down.

The absurdly drawn-out pissing contest that ensues makes more sense as an author working out two extremes of his personality. Who is Monahan more like? The anguished pretty boy Thomas, who’s read too much Beatnik? Or the sociopathic Jack, who just likes to mess with (and sometimes needlessly kill) people? Despite its ersatz-Cormac McCarthy talk and T.E. Lawrence quoting, it may be closer to Jack. The mood may be fatalistic, but everyone’s a quipping asshole, even Thomas himself, who sometimes breaks from his taciturn knock-off James Dean routine to snarl, “Are there any other rhetorical questions you need me to answer?” Thomas more often seems like the butt of jokes. Perhaps the key to unlocking where “Mojave” stands is a scene that finds him pompously bloviating through a TV interview while Jack chills on a couch in a stolen apartment, laughing his ass off.

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How much of “Mojave” is a joke? All of it? One could always make the case that it’s never on the level, not even with its anti-climax of a final showdown. That would protect it from a lot of derision, but the truth is a little more complicated. “Mojave” plays like its maker’s attempt to exorcise his own capacity for pseudo-intellectual machismo, as well as his habit of mocking everything. Some of the gags are easy, mostly the ones involving Hollywood. Nice as it is to have regular Monahan soundpiece Mark Wahlberg again, he’s playing a caricature — the shouty, perpetually bathrobed, prostitute-hiring producer — you could write even if you’d never visited California. Other yuks are enjoyably bitter, including a cryptic maybe-dig at Quentin Tarantino when Wahlberg crows, “I’m not into feet.” The result may really only be for Monahan himself, as well as those wanting to see another game turn from the Internet’s current boyfriend (now with a gold tooth). But when Monahan is in a foul mood, as he is here, it’s to everyone’s betterment.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge