All you need for a good thriller are some striking settings and two very good actors debating, posturing and convincing us they want to kill each other.
“Mojave” reminds us that Garrett Hedlund is better than many of the movies (“Tron”) he’s been in, and that Oscar Isaac is a lot better than his first-ever hammy/bad turn, in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Hedlund, in full Johnny Depp mode (greasy hair, scraggly beard) plays a film business heavyweight, a self-destructive actor who wants to “be like Byron.” Or something. He wanders off into the desert to find…himself? A reason to go on? A reason to kill himself?
Isaac, all smirk and glower and very bad teeth, is the drifter the actor encounters out beyond Joshua Tree. The drifter is armed, in a duster and cowboy hat. He could easily be mistaken for The Devil. That’s an opinion The Actor offers, out loud.
“Wanna sell your soul?” The Drifter jokes.
The Drifter is a philosopher, a literary wit, “John Stuart Mill level” smart. “I was tested!” His quips reveal that he’s almost as showbiz savvy as the actor.
“Jesus come out of…not this desert, another one,” he jokes again. But The Actor isn’t fooled by the charm. He’s got The Drifter’s gun, and he’s not giving it back.
“Desert’s no place to be cut,” our villain hisses, drawing a Bowie knife.
Their first fight leads to a shooting, a death, and then a stalking. The Actor escapes back to civilization, The Drifter tracks him through clues The Actor leaves — contacts (a hedonist hustler/producer, played by Mark Wahlberg, a sleazy agent-lawyer played by Walton Goggins).
As a screenwriter, few have worn their “go-to move” as plainly as this film’s writer/director, William Monahan. He’s a “cell-phone scripter,” whose “The Departed” and “Body of Lies” and “The Gambler” are so reliant on phone conversations that the plot device has become his crutch.
It’s a cost-effective trick. Write a lot of heated, colorful conversations — threats, negotiations — conducted by phone. Talk big-names into a minimum commitment role. They don’t even have to be there at the same time as the other stars. Build your movie around name actors having phone arguments.
That’s in evidence here. Wahlberg and Goggins are mostly in the movie via phones.
But the meat of “Mojave” is in the moments Hedlund and Isaac stare each other down, make veiled threats even as they’re thinking through how they can make good on those threats. They debate “the duality of Man,” the fluid nature of justice and “truth” and each one’s skill at avoiding both. Because in court, “truth” is “the fictional narrative that makes the most sense.”
The players and their flinty, smart dialogue make this lean movie the screen equivalent of bleached bones in the desert sand — bones with just enough meat on them to lure us in.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Oscar Isaac, Mark Wahlberg, Walton Goggins
Credits: Written and directed by William Monahan. An A24 elease.
Running time: 1:33