Monday, February 26, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #28. "Mojave" (2016)

Scene from Mojave
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Released: January 22, 2016 
Release Number: 28
Directed By: William Monahan
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Louise Bourgoin
Plot: A suicidal artist goes into the desert, where he finds his doppelgänger, a homicidal drifter.

In a year that produced three Oscar-winning films, A24 ended 2015 on a particularly high note and proved once and for all that they were the indie studio that could. With year four starting, it only seemed right that they would continue to use the formula that had gotten them a load of attention. There was a prestigious talent in the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Departed, William Monahan, and a cast that included A24 three timer Oscar Isaac in a prominent role. Mojave was another film from the DirecTV branch of the studio, and its quality is just as good as that reputation would proceed. It wasn't a bad film, but it's one of the few misfires after an incredible run in 2015, which included fellow Isaac film Ex Machina

For Monahan, the story began sometime before winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Departed. His recent claim to fame caused him to have an existential crisis that made him contemplate leaving film behind. He was also a novel writer, so he had some career to fall back on. When he decided to travel to the desert, he came across the idea that would evolve into Mojave. As he sat around a campfire, he noticed how beautiful the desert look. He began to picture different shots he could make for a movie. He eventually landed on the idea that an artist would travel out to the desert, but would find another man out there with dastardly intentions hidden underneath his kind demeanor.

The film would cast Garrett Hedlund in the lead role and team him with former Inside Llewyn Davis co-star Isaac. The script would be based on a large part of Monahan's personal career as a writer, of which would be the subtext of the film. There would be deconstructions of how film is made, and the crises that come with producing it. He pulled from personal experiences and brought aboard Mark Wahlberg, of whom he worked with previously on The Gambler. This was also the actor's first supporting role since Date Night several years before. There were constant complaints about potential strokes in the Mojave Desert sun, and the limited budget meant that Monahan couldn't get the "Lawrence of Arabia lens" that he wanted to shoot, which was more than five times the budget, and outside the rate of insurance. He settled for a Todd-AO lens, and compensated for errors by writing them into the plot. With that said, he didn't actually incorporate real people's personal experiences into any character, though he did hyperbolize himself within certain parts. When he went to deliver the final prints, he also got into a motorcycle accident.

Despite the film being completed in 2013, it had a long delay to its eventual release in 2015.The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, at which point Monahan raved about positive reviews. It wasn't long after that the film would get picked up by DirecTV and would have a limited release by A24 in January of 2016. Considering that Isaac had recently starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there was a certain belief that the film was banking on his recent stardom in the highest grossing film in cinematic history (not adjusting for inflation).   The film would receive a 30% rating on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, suggesting the film being overall unfavorable. The few good reviews included Jason Best of Movie Talk, who suggested that "Monahan adeptly captures an air of faded, stinking decadence -- but after an unforeseen murder, the third act never really materializes." However, most reviews recognized its cleverness but still were in line with Angie Han of SlashFilm, who wrote that "As failures go, Mojave is a pretty interesting one. But it's a failure nonetheless."

Despite its big star power and Oscar-winning talent behind the camera, Mojave was another one of the lesser films to come out of A24's DirecTV branch. It was an interesting failure, but remained easily forgettable in spite of everything it strove to be. It wasn't the best way to kick off their fourth year, though it was a nice set-up for what's to come metaphorically in terms of weirdness. Up next would be a film that returned the studio to the realm of strange horror, capturing cinema in its most unnerving form and producing something horrifying in its simplicity and atmosphere. It would also produce one of A24's only memorable animal sidekicks in a demented sheep. The Witch was a film that would prove to be controversial for the studio, but it wasn't without producing a film that so easily and perfectly got under people's skins.

Up Next: The Witch (2016)

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