Prickly, suspenseful, even coolly humorous, "Mojave" finds noirish fun in the existential woes of a successful artist and old-fashioned movie pleasure in the parry and thrust of sharp dialogue.
Garrett Hedlund stars as Tom, a sleepy-eyed, brooding moviemaker — famous since he was 19, now divorced and restless — who escapes his L.A. life for the titular desert and some pointedly macho, deliberately unpampered me time (crashing his Jeep, drinking, yelling at unseen coyotes). There he meets Jack (Oscar Isaac), a scruffy, rifle-wielding stranger in a duster whose menacing, literature-allusive campfire spiel ("I'm into motiveless malignity, I'm a Shakespeare man") spells trouble. As in, argument, struggle, pursuit and an accidental killing.
Tom makes his way back home, shaken into reengaging with his agent (a dryly funny Walton Goggins) and a brash, hedonistic movie producer (Mark Wahlberg), believing his tracks have been covered. But Jack, as cheekily devised by writer-director William Monahan, belongs to a long line of murderous, persistent interlopers that include Bruno in "Strangers on a Train," Max Cady from "Cape Fear" and even the Terminator.
Jack tracks down Tom because that's what demons do to insecure artists. And Jack also wants a showdown, because that's what movie bad guys deserve. Isaac, a gifted actor with a startling range, seems to grasp his role as part boogeyman presence, part meta-villain, and he plays both elements with relish.
Full-time directors invariably make movies that are barely disguised allegories about their job (Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"), while screenwriters who step behind the camera — Monahan has an Oscar for writing "The Departed" — usually like to play with themes of storytelling. (Think Alex Garland's "Ex Machina," a who-do-you-believe yarn.)
"Mojave" is clearly a riff on narrative but a mostly diverting one, and Monahan's direction, from the starkness of the desert to the claustrophobia of antiseptic Hollywood homes, is crisply effective, even if his show-offy screenplay inevitably fades under the weight of its unusual mix of western, thriller and movie industry exorcism. There's also the regrettably thin treatment of its only prominent female character, Tom's blank-faced French girlfriend (Louise Bourgoin).
But whenever Hedlund and Isaac are on screen together, sussing each other out, it's a satisfyingly tense matchup of faces, voices and intimidation — though occasionally brutal, this is not a movie that relies on cathartic violence. Monahan may have A-list screenwriting cachet, but his "Mojave" plays like a canny, personal B picture, the kind usually more slyly enjoyable than its bigger, more impersonal marquee mates.