Actor Jason Momoa (The Red Road, Game of Thrones and Conan the Barbarian) recently made his screenwriting/directorial debut in his Pride of Gypsies indie film Road to Paloma.
In many respects, Road to Paloma gives Momoa an important opportunity to continue exploring other sides of himself as an actor (as does The Red Road). Momoa has an enviable challenge that more actresses than actors can relate to — he’s too good-looking for his own good, and is often stereotyped because of it. And like Brad Pitt, not even a scruffy beard and tangled hair can disguise that lovely fact or face.
But once you unglue your eyes from his physicality, Road to Paloma becomes an absolutely absorbing film. Momoa’s dry, sarcastic delivery and laid-back humour helps to ground his beauty, preventing him from existing exclusively in pretty boy territory. Chaka V.
The film follows fugitive Robert J. Wolf, a Native American man (from the Fort Mojave Indian tribe) who has killed a white man that raped and murdered his mother. Despite being guilty, the murderer is freed to smugly get on with his life. Distraught over the unjust release, Wolf beats him to death with a rock, and goes on the run for the next six months. He has one final mission that he is compelled to carry out for his mother, and that is to bring her ashes to a sacred place.
Road to Paloma was inspired by a February 2012 New York Times piece that revealed startling statistics regarding how often those who sexually assault Native women and children actually face criminal charges. “The government did not pursue rape charges on reservations 65% of the time last year and rejected 61% of cases involving charges of sexual abuse of children.” Furthermore, “Arrests of Sexual Assaults Reported (Nationwide) 35% for Black Women, 32% for White Women, 13% for Native American Women.” After being confronted by an FBI agent about Wolf’s whereabouts, Wolf’s grieving father, a reservation police officer (played by Wes Studi) speaks on this hypocrisy. “It seems anytime a rape occurs on a reservation you guys are nowhere to be found. But a white man’s murder, then it’s call out the cavalry.”
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, Robert Wolf’s father being a law man, and Wolf, a vigilante fugitive. Both men try to do what is right, but neither sees justice. It was also a significant choice to make the victim of rape Wolf’s mother, and not his innocent sister, or young wife. Women of all ages deal with sexual assault and abuse, and it is crucial to destroy this idea in our society that there are those whose lives are worthy of protection and justice, and others whose lives are deemed exploitable and disposable. (Later in the film Wolf and Cash intervene on a horrific crime that left me shaken. It’s a harrowing scene that reminds the audience why Momoa and his co-writers were inspired to make this film to begin with.) Thankfully, we never see scenes of the rape and beating of Wolf’s mother, and the murder he commits also remains an enigma. (Film and television has an insatiable history of exploiting images of rape and assault towards women and children, with no real discussion around the ways in which we can prevent and protect the most vulnerable).
As Wolf makes his way across country, he meets Cash (played by Robert Homer Mollohan), a reckless rocker who is coping with the end of his marriage by imploding. We meet Cash as he struts topless on stage, showering his guitarist in a rain of beer spit before head-butting him. He initially reads very cliché, but once he awakens from his drunken stupor, slightly cross-eyed and remorseful, he becomes endearing. The relationship between Wolf and Cash feels authentic (Momoa and Mollohan co-wrote the script with Jonny Hirschbein). The actors clearly relished playing rebels on the wide open road, boozing, fighting and meeting beautiful women. (Wolf appears quite relaxed on the road rather than a paranoid man on the run.) I can imagine Momoa and Mollohan going on to write and star in some more successful buddy flicks.
I will admit, I originally watched the movie to see Lisa Bonet. I am a huge fan of the woman and her work, and I was pleased to see that her presence in the film did not disappoint. Playing a woman by the name of Magdalena, Bonet leaps off the screen the moment we watch her striding angrily to the gas station after her petal-pink classic automobile dies on the side of the highway. For a moment, Magdalena changes the feel of the film from a buddy movie to a love story.
Lovers in real life (Bonet and Momoa are married with two children), the pair can’t suppress their smiles or their sizzling chemistry. Wolf’s shyness in the presence of Magdalena is sincere, making Wolf suddenly look like a goofy teenage boy who gets to make out with the hot girl he’s crushed on since 9th grade. The scene where Magdalena and Wolf flirt in the orange grove outside of her home is one of the most beautiful moments in the film. It is also the first time we see his vulnerability and a moment of real ease and pleasure. In the meantime, Cash falls in lust at a strip club called Big Rig Doll House Gentlemen’s Club—who says truckers don’t have fun on the road? By the morning both men are changed.
It is fantastic to see a film that presents a segment of the Native American culture with some complexity. From Wolf’s dad who is a dedicated cop to his bohemian sister in a loving marriage, and the beautiful Indian traditions woven into the film organically (as when Wolf and his father honour his mother’s passing), we see people living their lives, doing the best they can. In Canada we have the wonderful imagineNATIVE festival that makes sure Aboriginal stories have a vehicle to be heard, seen and appreciated. Road to Paloma joins in on a greater conversation happening on screens all over the world.
Now to some of the weak areas of the film. Because Wolf is such an immediately likable and redeemable character, it is impossible not to sympathise — even champion — his actions, which all makes the bad cop character, FBI Agent Williams (played by Timothy V. Murphy), seem odd and overdramatic. Played with an intense cold eyed monotone demeanour, William’s rabid search for Wolf feels over the top, as if he’s playing a character in a Harrison Ford 90’s chase film. This far too heavy-handed character reads one dimensional, and ultimately does a disservice to the film. However, he is balanced by the more empathetic Schaeffer (Chris Browning), who sees Wolf as a hero rather than a criminal. The ending could have done with some greater nuance, but it also felt inevitable.
Wolf’s journey is a memorable and worthy one, story wise and visually–the gorgeous honey-hued cinematography illuminates the American West, leaving your eyes drunk with pleasure (Brian Mendoza served as the director of photography). And the soundtrack is one of the best soundtracks for a film I’ve heard in a long time. (My favourite track is below.)
I look forward to more Pride of Gypsies productions by this talented director.