TO THE HASHI!: Monahan's MOJAVE Brings Intriguing Dichotomy Tossed In Conversational Film Salad


For about the first twenty minutes of director William Monahan's 2015 film, Mojave, an ascetic hand is at work in laying out the mise-en-scène and inciting incident of his self-written script. It all begins with a video clip of protagonist Tom, leaning back in a chair and smoking a cigarette. We learn that he has been famous for most of his life, the nature of his celebrity a question (the answer, though made clear later, is perhaps inapropos, if we allow that Tom, in his own way, is a cipher), and that he is bored with his life to the point of suicidal insouciance. Insouciance, as it were, at once a term a duo of emulous characters in this film would discuss for hours in a Metaphysica drama.

Monahan shoots, in the opening minutes that follow the video clip, what must have been a stack of nearly blank pages, capturing an economy of expressions that call to mind what French filmmaker Robert Bresson once said about cinematography, “a writing with images in movement and with sounds”, or, as writer Paul Schrader termed it, “a transcendental style”.

Not this one.
As we begin to follow the laconic Tom, he gathers his things and wanders from his home and into the desert, a frontier - I am reminded of Kaurismaki’s 1990 film, The Match Factory Girl. It is, to be sure, an unfair comparison. But it makes for an interesting one as the images that present Tom to us as a character, weighed in evidence before the narrative throws us the distraction of other characters, speak to a psyche–much like Kaurismaki’s protagonist Iris - desperate to escape the trappings of his life.

Tom kisses his sleeping French actress mistress Milly, a thankless role embodied by Louise Bourgoin, before leaving the house. Writes her a letter. Hops in his jeep. Drives and drives, the Mojave desert panning by in the background like an advertisement for despondency. He stops to purchase vodka and water from a gas station, ignoring the clerk as he leaves who tries to call him back to give him his change. He drives and drives some more, smokes lots of cigarettes, contemplates life in silence for hours, makes camp and a fire.
Apparently Tom is in the mist of an impromptu spiritual intermission of sorts, the emptiness of the desert an appropriate setting, when he senses he is being watched, and, showing a survivalist’s instinct not before this point forebode, draws a pocket knife and stands to meet his unwelcome guest.

It matters that he seems disappointed when no one shows.

The next day he crashes his jeep and proceeds to continue his journey on foot. That’s when he meets the guy who’s been watching, the rifle bearing man just strolled up to Tom’s new camp to help himself to some coffee. Jack, an outlandish drifter that looks suspiciously like Oscar Isaac.

They won’t recognize me in my next costume! 
The thing about Isaac is that he’s good at playing a certain kind of character. The cool intellectual. Here we meet his intellectual again, at this juncture dressed like a time traveler from the pre-industrial era. It is an odd, decidedly on the nose decision made by costume designer, Arielle Antoine, that somehow, with prescience, renders Isaac’s Jack an avatar for the film’s paranoia as well as its own nostalgia for the movie it set out to be against an acutely recalcitrant orbit. You half expect him to call over his sack mule for a formal introduction.

We don’t get that. Sadly. Instead we get an evasive conversation between two men playing chess with vocabulary, an unraveling that you wish the entire movie was about; just this ballooning confrontation that starts as a civilized conversation but quickly devolves into a primal contest of enmity.

These men are instant rivals; Jack, a drifter whose every move and tick hints at nefarious intent, and Tom, a man bored with having everything who now wants nothing, giving birth, in this instant, to a dormant rage. Aristotle talked about that; In Nicomachean Ethics, he said, “the man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised.” Matthew Hutson of the New York Times, in an article titled "The Rationality of Rage", talked about the “judicious” use of anger for galvanizing coalitions, getting better deals, and improving one’s quality of life.

It can be argued that Jack and Tom are these contrary expressions of rage interpreted. Jack’s anger, as he gets to know Tom, becomes a rage justified by the umbrage of watching a privileged man take for granted what he has. Tom’s rage, that his attempt to gain perspective on life (or decide, on his own, to end it –perhaps by a form of seppuku) would be interrupted by a stranger seeking to take advantage of his ennui, to, worse, rob him of his choice in regard to life itself. Both Tom and Jake, the campfire blazing between them, speak in grandiose language. Much like Ahab - who as Jake references at one point - does when addressing his crew in the book Moby Dick, to inspire and uplift them. These two characters are flipsides of the same damaged psyche, engaged in a private war to see whose ideology is most true to life.

It is noted that they share throughout the film’s runtime a prolific –gratuitous?- use of the word “brother” when addressing each other, ironically. It is like how the quote “I am my brother’s keeper” is used in New Jack City, its meaning changed from when Alex Haley used the same line in his novel, "A Different Kind of Christmas"; A sort of bastardization of the concept, of the language itself, in the same way that these two main characters in Mojave are bastards. Bastards, and, as mentioned above, literary ciphers. It’s a lot to take it. Or perhaps it isn’t. The film’s intelligence leaks out of the ear like liquidized brain matter every time Mark Wahlberg makes an appearance (more on this in a moment). I wish I could call that an exaggeration.

Well…

If it’s not an accident that Garrett Hedlund’s Tom is made up to look a little like Kurt Cobain, then we can call it inspired that he also acts like a Kurt Sutter character, fresh off the set of Sons Of Anarchy. That’s a double morbid reference, for the kids at home, and a good moment for a brake-slamming segue.
Mark Wahlberg comes along at this point to ruin what the film’s opening started.

Letting Kylo Ren off the hook for failing Vader.
Soon after the dense and compelling meeting between Jake and Tom, violence ensues between them ending with Tom getting the jump on Jake. Tom returns to his world where we discover that he is a filmmaker, and Jake, seeking revenge, follows in an arc where we learn that, indeed, he is a serial killer who, unfortunate for Tom, has found sport in his next choice of victims.

It’s around this point where we’re introduced to Wahlberg’s character, Norman, a man who is in every sense of the word a parody of a film producer. His performance registers as a poorly calibrated attempt to inject comic relief into the proceedings. The longer he is onscreen, the more I regret that Kaurismaki reference.

Tom makes efforts to refit himself into his celebrity lifestyle while Jake takes his time to stalk and learn about Tom. There’s a scene where he watches the documentary from the film’s opening clip. It plays like social commentary on the sociopathic relationship between star and fan. Andrew Hewitt brings eerie music to the score, at which point the film achieves a further transcendence – a Kafka-esque metamorphosis from noir-ish thriller to...broken satire? ...For the life of me, I can’t get over Wahlberg’s character. It’s like he is method acting for a continuation of his role in Transformers: Age Of Extinction, a jarring fit, no doubt, in a movie wherein two guys that eventually try to kill each other have discussions about philosophy, Shakespeare, and the historic ramifications of influence wrought by men who wander in deserts. Perhaps if the film had remained as ascetic as it began, more opportunities could have been mined for providing comic relieve between the two principle characters. Instead, Mark Wahlberg’s Norman, presumably, is saddled with this high order – one ultimately unfulfilled.

It’s hard to not to feel a little sorry for Monahan. The first twenty minutes of his film err towards brilliance, reminding you for a suspended moment that this is the same guy behind the script for The Departed. On that honor, and to assist Monahan is saving a little face, perhaps I’ll end on a positive note, bringing up again that poignant opening: In Jake’s soliloquy on the influence of men who wander in deserts, there is a reference to T.E. Lawrence, better known to some as Lawrence of Arabia. It is noted that Lawrence trekked across the Sinai Peninsula to Aqaba to the Suez Canal in a 70 hour journey with little food, water, or rest, during which he wrote his master work, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". The historical record reminds that it was rewritten after losing the original manuscript while changing trains at Reading railway station.

We’ll assume the movie that happened after the first twenty minutes of Mojave was the improvisation of Monahan’s own lost manuscript, and that maybe we’ll get a better version (a director’s cut!) sometime later when he finishes rewriting it.

Khalil Barnett is a martial arts practioner living in Florida, and is also a filmmaker, writer, producer and actor starring in the independent action drama series, The Way, and co-creator of upcoming indie action short, Santos. Visit the official Facebook page for more info.

Comments

  1. you are possessed of a delightful and nuanced brilliance sir. i am impressed over and over again.

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