When I first saw Jason Momoa on screen in "Conan" back in Summer 2011, I was impressed. He had potential. He stumbled over his words, relied on his physical presence, but you could see the drive in his eyes. There was something untapped lurking beneath those biceps. Speaking with him during the junket for the film, I was beyond impressed with his candor and his desire to move forward, grow as an actor. No mention was made of going behind the camera as writer/director. But look at the turns that one can take on the road of life. And that’s exactly what has happened with ROAD TO PALOMA. Creating an almost “Easy Rider” vibe, as writer/first-time director/actor, Jason Momoa dazzles with moody emotional depth and a stylized visual eye, delivering a film that is not only beautiful to look at, but beautifully done.
Native American Robert Wolf is on the run after murdering the man who raped and murdered his mother. Seemingly carefree as he rides around the beauteous American Southwest, hot on his heels are two federal agents who seem to have more than a vested interest in Wolf’s capture that goes even beyond that of an extremist “White Man versus Native American” viewpoint. Doing odd jobs to make ends meet and get from town to town, Wolf is never at a loss for exhibiting kindness towards others. A gentle soul within a commanding physique, Wolf is more like a Boy Scout helping an elderly lady across the street than a killer. Lending aid one night to a trouble-making drifter named Cash, the two partner up and ride, almost as if Wolf sees Cash as being redemptive for himself and in repayment to the spirits for his own unclean hands.
Encountering adventures along the way, albeit possibly implausible to some people, this casual meeting turns into a brotherly bond and friendship that finds Cash doing all he can to not only change his own life, but help Wolf find peace and fulfill his ultimate journey of returning his mother’s ashes to sacred ground.
As for Jason Momoa and his performance in ROAD TO PALOMA as Wolf - talk about growth as an actor since “Conan”!! More confident and sure-footed, Momoa has developed nuance within his physicality and uses his eyes and his smile to speak volumes where words would never be enough. For a hulking muscular man, Momoa has harnessed a sensitivity that we see him bring him out consistently in ROAD TO PALOMA. He wears his heart on his sleeve and it's beautifully done. If he keeps going with performances like Wolf and in projects like ROAD TO PALOMA, Jason Momoa is going to be around for the long haul. As he stated to me those years ago about having Schwarzenegger as an inspiration, if Momoa keeps on track the way he is, he WILL fill Ah-nold's shoes on so many levels. (And note to Jason - Schwarzenegger has never directed a film so you’re already ahead of the game.)
A total unknown to me until now, Robert Mollohan is definitely on my radar. Exploring a full character arc with defined beats of growth, Mollohan lays it all on the table with a range of emotions that belie a man with a conscience making the third act even more poignant. Striking is that Momoa cast someone who strongly resembles him physically and with his facial expressiveness. It tacitly adds multiple layers to the film when Wolf reaches out to help Cash - a younger version of himself perhaps, a version of himself of who he could have become without spiritual and family guidance of his tribe or even, as the story was unfolding, a story twist with Cash being mistaken for Wolf and vice versa with each paying for the other's sins. A nice little dynamic with Mollohan's casting.
Lisa Bonet is absolutely lovely as Magdalena, bringing an elusive softness and ethereal sensuality to the role, serving as a spiritual compliment to Momoa's Wolf. Big and hulking does bode soft and tender and kind. Timothy Murphy is ideal as Williams, throwing a monkey wrench into the mix as a truly a "bad" federal agent. Murphy's casting and his performance allows us to further see the dichotomous nature of right and wrong, good and bad, and justice. Nicely crafted character on the page by Momoa and co-writers. Well executed on screen by Murphy. As with the casting of Murphy, likewise for Chris Browning as Schaefer. Well placed and effective. And let’s not overlook Lance Henriksen as FBI Agent Kelly. Although with the performance feeling a bit disconnected and disjointed with some of the story thematic, still a nice little turn and always a welcome addition to any cast.
Written by Momoa, Robert Homer Mollohan and Jonathan Hirschbein, the story is quiet yet powerful. Although quite often in ROAD TO PALOMA the visuals speak louder than the words, the morality and strength of conviction, right versus wrong, redemption, forgiveness, radiate and permeate every performance, every movement, every shot. Wolf's journey is one which all of us face in one form or another at some time in our lives. The self-reflection and redemption is powerfully captured and elicited not only by Momoa's Wolf but by Mollohan's Cash. The development of the Wolf-Cash relationship is inspiring, hopeful and yes, cathartic and redemptive. Watching Momoa and Mollohan feed off of each other and watching the growth in Mollohan's Cash is quite honestly, inspiring. It never feels forced or events gratuitous. It feels inherently organic to the film and the characters.
What I appreciate from Momoa and Mollohan is not only that they are always respectful of the Native Americans, in this case, the Mojave tribe, as well as with their inclusion and foundation of the idea of the distinction between tribal laws and US laws and the crossover confusion that often results procedurally. We may all know about tribal law within the context of the history of the US, but there's also tribal law and tribal courts within the US judicial system where legal matters involving Native Americans are litigated, tried, etc. With this in mind, I am curious as to how much research the writers did into that as entering protected reservation land, hunting down a Native American as one seemingly vigilante Fed, intrigues me as to the accuracy of it.
With ROAD TO PALOMA, we clearly see Jason Momoa has a keen eye, a discerning eye, a director's storytelling eye. Given what I see here, over time as he garners more directing experience, Momoa will prove a formidable force. Taking that gift and putting him together with first-time feature cinematographer Brian Mendoza - talk about stars colliding! Together, they visually create is a languid, spiritually sensual palette that dazzles with light, with warmth, with the glow of the elements, metaphorically fueling and capturing the very essence of the story. From the opening shots, you gasp at the beauty of the saturation, the golden glow of the sun on a painted desert. Momoa and Mendoza let the eye of the camera serve as a window to what is almost the soul of the story. Beautiful, ethereal. Montages such as that of Momoa's Wolf and Lisa Bonet's Magdalena are poignant, soft, sensitive while motorcycle buddy shots on the open road - freeing and carefree, filled with joy. You see it on the faces of Momoa and Mollohan. You feel it from the visuals. As Momoa so keenly directs, no words are needed to convey the depth of emotion. So beautiful is the light and lensing that I would be hard-pressed to find one or two key "money shots" in the film.
I would be remiss not to mention Jennifer Tiexiera's editing. Pacing is calculated, methodical and on the slow and languid side, furthering the spiritual nature of Wolf and the inner peace he seeks. The montage scene with Momoa and Bonet is breathtaking, softly and fluidly cut, complimented by a "cheesecloth" Garbo lighting effect.
Notable is the incorporation of the Mojave language which is peppered throughout the film with English sub-titles when appropriate. Also participating in the production are members of the Fort Mojave tribe.
One downfall of the film is the sound. Was there a mic shortage? In virtually every scene but for those within Tucker's house, whenever someone turns their head away from a face to face, we lose the sound of the person turning their head. Very distracting. I don't know if it's the mix or a problem that occurred during filming or a bad print, but it's the one technical issue I have with the film.
The scoring from Ohad Benchetrit and Justin Small is melodious and soft. However, not too keen on the end title song and one or two others scattered within the context of the film. While much of the scoring captures the tonal elements of Native American music, it often feels akin to a heartbeat, keeping pace.
ROAD TO PALOMA is so much more than a road picture or buddy picture. This is a roadmap of life, inner peace and redemption....... Beautifully done. Can’t wait to see where Momoa takes us next on film and with his own directorial journey.
Directed by Jason Momoa
Written by Jason Momoa, Robert Homer Mollohan and Jonathan Hirschbein
Cast: Jason Momoa, Robert Homer Mollohan, Lisa Bonet, Lance Henriksen, Timothy Murphy, Chris Browning