After his mother is violently raped and murdered, Native American, Wolf (Momoa), goes on the warpath, killing the culprit in full tribal fashion. After fleeing the bloody scene, Wolf is on the run being pursued by an obsessive FBI agent that sees his crime not as justified vengeance, but holds it in scornful contempt. Six months later and Wolf is now a part time loner and social magnet on the open roads of America’s Midwest.
Wolf’s befriends Cash (Mollohan), a touring musician dumped by his band. The unlikely friendship sees the pair getting into road-weary adventures. As Wolf and Cash are men apart, silently pained by the detachment from their old lives, the road serves as an escape until they reach Paloma where Wolf must go to spread his dead mother’s ashes.
Films about Native American Indians generally sway towards big period epics like Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, The New World; leaving the modern existence and social commentary to be found in the smaller, overlooked, budgeted gems found on the independent film circuit, as is very much the case with Road to Paloma.
As director, producer and co-writer, Jason Momoa has given himself a big task by investing so much of himself into his first film. Having chosen his main character and a setting rooted in Native American culture, he himself, partly of American Indian ancestry, has clearly chosen wisely with his subject matter.
Jason Momoa brings a wider and unseen skillset to this performance as there is much to admire and warm to with Wolf having depth, showing emotion and generally being quite three dimensional. Wolf is cool as a modern day road warrior who graces every encounter in his stride. He is at ease with himself and the native environment of the open road. He is soulful, a thinker, a brawler, a caring family man; loved by his brethren, he has a strong sense of himself in his cultural identity and seeks to put right injustice when he finds it.
His brief encounters and friendships with people have a feel-good pleasantness to them, none more so than with road buddy and Jim Morrison lookalike Cash. This is a pact that sees two cultural opposites with baggage form an endearing, kindred bond.
Although there is a melancholy mood lingering throughout the film, Wolf does not seem as a man that is encumbered by the burden of guilt or has any regrets for his actions of premeditated murder, as in his eyes it was an act of personal and tribal justice. This is a point that gives the viewer consideration to the nature of his crime.
Even as a fugitive, he is such a laid back and care-free soul that it is easy for you to forget that he is on the run and just revel in his adventures. It’s not until the second half of the film that you get a sense of danger from the pursuit by the law, which doesn’t really ramp up until the latter stages of the film.
This does have the feel of an actor placed behind the camera for the first time, with touches of guerrilla styled camera work and a little over-indulgence added to the cinematography. But it says the right things in the right places, saying something deep, earthy and spiritual about freedom, territory and the land Wolf roams. There are plenty of lingering silent shots of the snow-capped Sierra Mountains, the sprawling Red Mountain Wilderness and contrasting hues of dusk and dawn of America’s Midwest. Given the amount of time spent on the road by Wolf and Cash, it seems clear that Jason Momoa is a vintage bike enthusiast.
Beyond the freewheeling and easy riding, there are much more serious issues brought up. Jason Momoa has carefully used his camera to touch upon the denigration of Native American culture in America. We see deep marks of oppression carved out on the ghettoised reservations (otherwise known as The Res): a once-great warrior people bare-knuckle fighting for cash; alcoholism; high crime rates; unemployment and federal harassment.
The most disturbing of injustices though are the high proportion of rapes committed against women on the reservation. This is mentioned various times, not just in Wolf’s retribution against his mother’s killer, but when he and Cash intervene in stopping a violent sexual assault from a Caucasian outsider upon a young native girl on the reservation.
The film is clearly trying to raise some measure of awareness of these issues. This is no more starkly highlighted than when Wolf’s father (Wes Studi) and tribal policeman makes a cutting point in saying to the sadistic FBI agent “A local girl gets raped and killed on the res, and the outside world stays silent. When a white man gets killed, they call out the cavalry”.
The performances from all involved are well rendered, if a little fleeting, especially from the fantastic Wes Studi and Momoa’s real life girlfriend, Lisa Bonet. No road movie is complete without a great soundtrack; in this case, a heavy dose of whiskey soaked bluesy rock ramps up the on the road adventures, as does an ambient nature-celebrating score for the introspective and scoping moments.
A fine and earthy first effort with a social conscience that mixes up Easy Rider and Into the Wild with plenty of Terrence Malick styled influences to admire.
Review by Martin Goolsarran
[SRA value=”3.5″ type=”YN”]
Road to Paloma is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 06 April. Buy from Amazon