Desperate Men Go Into the Desert

Mojave

by Hope Madden

“I’m into motiveless malignacy. I’m a Shakespeare man.”

So begins the battle of wits and wills at the center of Mojave, writer/director William Monahan’s meditation on the alpha male.

Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) is having an existential crisis. He’s been famous his entire adult life, and now that he has everything, there’s nothing left for him to want. His downward spiral leads him into the desert, where he happens upon a drifter (Oscar Isaac).

The duo’s hyper-literate fireside exchange is tinged with predatory tones, each man intrigued by the shifting ground of dominant/submissive beneath the wordplay.

The stilted, noir-esque characters – including bizarre cameos from Walton Goggins and Mark Walberg – are too hard boiled to be authentic. Instead Monahan and his cast create entertainingly dead-eyed facsimiles of humans, each floating (often meaninglessly) in and out of the battling pair’s dilemma.

What is that dilemma? Well, something happened out in that desert, and as drifter Jack says, “The game is on, brother.”

The wealthy, handsome Thomas misjudges his lowlife adversary, but Jack is equally guilty of underestimating the superficial pretty boy he’s set as his mark. Don’t look for a good guy in this battle, though, because the world would be better off without either party, and they both know it.

Isaac ranks among the most talented actors working today. If you only know him from Star Wars, you need to look deeper into this chameleonic performer’s work. He struggles here and there with Mojave, though, because Monahan’s writing makes it hard to find a real person beneath all the machismo.

Hedlund is no Isaac, but it’s fun to see the chemistry between the two (who shared a similarly uncomfortable chemistry during their fateful car ride in Inside Llewyn Davis).

Ultimately the cat-and-mouse thriller drowns in its own testosterone – the pair of utterly suicidal antiheroes buckling beneath their burdensome masculinity. Still, as literary references abound and the more-alike-than-different outsiders bristle at societal constraint, this over-written mess remains curiously fascinating.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pwwVQ8YCl4

Hold ‘Em, Fold ‘Em and What Not

The Gambler

by George Wolf

“I tell the truth, that’s all I got.”

So says Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) in The Gambler, an intermittently tense thriller that doesn’t feel all that truthful.

Bennett is a college literature professor with a secret: he’s a high stakes gambler, and he’s deep in debt to the kind of people you shouldn’t be deep in debt to. Jim borrows from everyone and his mother (Jessica Lange) to get out, but his compulsion leads to a deeper and deeper hole.

If it all sounds familiar, then you remember the original 1974 version starring James Caan, a film that doesn’t exactly beg for a re-do. Still, if you’re going to do it, the writer/director team of William Monahan and Rupert Wyatt is a pretty good building block. The exciting, well-paced opening sets the hook for a more effective crime drama than the one that materializes.

Monahan wrote The Departed, and Wyatt helmed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which makes The Gambler‘s resulting missteps all the more surprising.

Though John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams make solid gangsters, you never believe Jim is in any real danger if he fails to pay up. Sure, they rough him up a bit, but Jim just keeps on cracking wise like he’s in Lethal Weapon 6 and someone who’s too old for this shit is coming with the cavalry.

Even worse, when Jim gets involved in a point-shaving scheme, the resulting basketball footage makes you wonder if Wyatt has ever watched even five minutes of an actual college game.

Still, there are stretches that suggest The Gambler could have been more of a contender. Wahlberg is always better with a confident director, and he realizes Jim’s self-loathing without letting it become a caricature. Brie Larson is equally fine in an under-developed role as a student who has seen Jim’s dark side.

There are characters here that are ripe for exploring, amid the stylish depiction of a seedy underbelly worthy of illumination. It’s been done well before, but doing it well again requires hedging your bets with a few risky moves, and The Gambler is just too quick to fold ’em.

 

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