Though he’s best known for swinging a massive sword in Conan the Barbarian or mounting Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones, there’s more to Jason Momoa than meets the eye. And that he’s more than just a physically imposing man of action has never been more clear than in his directorial debut Road to Paloma. Behind the camera, he makes a strong first impression. As the film’s star, he delivers his most emotive performance to date. And when you add in that he co-wrote the script and produced Road to Paloma, it’s easy to see just how completely this movie belongs to him.
Momoa plays Wolf, a rough-and-tough Native American on the run from FBI agents after tracking down and murdering the man who brutally raped and killed his mother. Angry and world-weary, Wolf sets out on his motorcycle, intent on riding to the Teton Range, where he can spread his mother’s ashes. Along the way, Wolf strikes up an unlikely friendship with self-destructive musician Cash (Robert Mollohan), who is coping with the end of his marriage. As they ride, staying one step ahead of their pursuers, the trip sends the two drifters on a journey of redemption.
Road to Paloma keeps the spotlight on Moma, who nails every nuance of his Eastwood-ian, antihero protagonist, communicating much through body language and his deceptively expressive eyes. Wolf’s rage, vulnerability, playful interior and overall aimlessness are all conveyed clearly and believably. I was truly wowed by the actor’s work here – though he’s more than proven himself as a mighty warrior, roles like Conan and Khal Drogo didn’t give Momoa much more to do than beat his chest and roar. Turns out, there’s a serious thespian hiding underneath all the tattoos, facial hair and muscle.
This is Momoa’s show through and through, although Mollohan also has some strong moments. His character is less developed than Wolf, so Cash’s struggles are harder to sympathize with, but the actor does manage to sell Cash as a down-and-out cad who has deluded himself into thinking a grin and a wink are enough to take care of any situation. The chemistry between him and Momoa is terrific, particularly when they’re filmed weaving down the road on their motorcycles, two very different men united in a sense of freedom and fleeting immortality.
Sarah Shahi, Lisa Bonet (Momoa’s off-screen wife, which explains the heat between the pair during their scenes) and Michael Raymond-Jones have small roles, but the only other player who leaves much of an impact is Timothy V. Murphy as Williams, the nasty agent hunting Wolf. Though that character’s transition from lawman into all-out villain is a little rocky, Murphy becomes truly terrifying to watch – and the actor savors every menacing moment.
Characters aside, the story of Road to Paloma is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it earns points for highlighting the seldom-acknowledged epidemic of violence against Native American women. I almost wish that the film could have spent more time discussing that giant issue directly, but Road to Paloma is mostly about the injustices Wolf suffers, so perhaps confining the topic to a couple of powder-keg scenes was a smart decision.
In Momoa’s hands, Road to Paloma is one grim, gritty and uncompromising film. It feels like the product of a filmmaker with a clear vision who has figured out exactly how he wishes to articulate it. However, what that also means is that Road to Paloma will not appeal to everyone. Its sense of tragedy, injustice and creeping doom will unsettle some viewers, and its somber tone will frustrate others.
However, fans of ’70s road movies like Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider (fine, that’s ’69, cut me a break) will likely enjoy what Momoa has constructed. It ambles along quite affably whenever Wolf and Cash take to the open road on their trusty steel horses, featuring absolutely gorgeous landscapes and making use of some perfectly picked tunes (including gems by the Radio Birds and Shovels & Rope).
Incorporating dazzling scenery, golden-hued lighting and a powerfully charged atmosphere, Road to Paloma looks absolutely beautiful, and though its story is dour, the combination of those visuals and Momoa’s committed (but never overly brooding) performance keep the plot from grinding the viewer down. As Momoa’s directorial debut, Road to Paloma is particularly impressive from a visual standpoint. Momoa and his small team of eight friends managed to capture the harsh and desolate beauty of the American West while also pulling off many complex shots with little gear and a shoe-string budget. It may even be true that shooting Road to Paloma in such a minimalistic way enhanced the experience, lending the film an undeniable authenticity.
Once again, Road to Paloma is not for everyone. It’s decidedly harsh, ruminative and ominous – all traits one would expect from a film by Momoa, Khal Drogo himself. But in his refusal to give in to cinematic norms and deliver a tidy, feel-good tale of redemption, Momoa has earned my respect, first as an actor but also as a director. I’ll look forward to traveling down many more roads with him in the future – even (or is it especially?) ones as rugged as this.
Gritty, grim and uncompromising, Road to Paloma is an uncommonly thoughtful and thrilling ride, made all the better by Jason Momoa's magnetic screen presence.