There’s a moment in William Monahan’s sun-kissed psychological thriller Mojave where Oscar Isaac’s Jack turns to the suicidal artist Thomas, played by Garrett Hedlund and asks, “Do you know yet which one of us is the bad guy?” A question that could just as well be posed to the viewer, as one that lays the foundations for a compelling picture that blurs the line between good and evil, and has you immersed within a traditionalist cat and mouse tale – without affiliation.

Thomas leaves behind his beautiful girlfriend and actress, Milly (Louise Bourgoin) asleep in his bed, not to mention his child in England, as he sets off into the Mojave Desert with a rifle and the willingness to use it. It’s there he meets the hapless drifter Jack, who the volatile Thomas attacks by his campfire. Paranoid and on the run, the artist shoots and kills a local law enforcer when startled one morning, without realising that Jack is lingering in the distance, witnessing the event. Having this vital nugget of information could be used as a means of blackmail for the drifter – but then again, so could brute force, which seems somewhat more appealing to the homicidal individual.

Monahan – who presents just his second directorial outing after 2010’s London Boulevard – portrays his capabilities as an accomplished screenplay writer, having been the man behind the likes of The Departed, Body of Lies and recently, The Gambler. With the crux of the best lines falling on the lap of Mark Wahlberg’s Norman, an associate of Thomas’, it’s the latter who represents the most intriguing character creation. We are thrown into his inner turmoil without any sense of context, making for an absorbing start as we ponder over why the protagonist has seemingly dropped everything and set out into the desert without a single care in the world.

You don’t like Thomas much either, as he’s something of a reprehensible figure, without any real conscious, and very few redeeming qualities to make up for it. It makes for an intriguing narrative, for we follow the familiar beats of the archetypal cat and mouse thriller, except we find ourselves, at times, rooting for the cat, where usually we’re so often vying for the prey. In spite of that difference, there is a real Coen brothers feel about this endeavour, particularly comparable to that of No Country for Old Men – mostly as it’s a chase between two characters, taking place across the unforgiving, Southern America landscape.

There’s also a great flow to the dialogue, though it does feel contrived in parts. It’s not in any way realistic in its execution, but then in Monahan’s defence, it’s not really trying to vie for naturalism, playing up endearingly to the ineffably cinematic atmosphere, which most certainly lets it off the hook – in several instances.