Road To Paloma is a fugitive-on-the-run story, a road flick that zooms across the sun-dappled landscapes of the American West, and a slow-paced pseudo-commentary on the injustices committed against Native Americans by white men. It is also, to date, the most Jason Momoa movie in the history of motion pictures.
Road to Paloma stars Momoa, the exotically handsome mountain of an actor who played Khal Drogo on HBO’s Game Of Thrones, and will reportedly become Aquaman in Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Road To Paloma also was co-written by Jason Momoa, co-produced by Jason Momoa, and directed by Jason Momoa. And it features scene after scene in which Jason Momoa mounts motorcycles, wears shirts that tend to lack sleeves, and occasionally stares off meaningfully into the lavender twilight of a desert sunset. The whole film gives off the pungent, testosterone-heavy musk of a vanity project. But for Momoa, Road To Paloma may be less about pure vanity, and more about the artist formerly known as Conan The Barbarian 2.0 attempting to prove he’s capable of more serious, contemplative work than Hollywood tends to offer muscled, vaguely Dwayne Johnson-esque guys like himself. That’s an admirable goal, but the film that resulted doesn’t live up to his blatantly lofty, lyrical ambitions.
In Road To Paloma, Momoa is Robert Wolf, a Mojave tribe member who murdered a white man responsible for committing a brutal crime against his mother. As officials at the local and federal level attempt to track him down, Wolf cycles off on the open road, determined to spread his mother’s ashes at a scenic lake while lying low and far out of reach of the law’s long arm. During his journey, Wolf inevitably picks up some partners, including road-trip buddy Cash (Robert Homer Mollohan), an alcoholic slacker of a rock musician, and Magdalena (Lisa Bonet), a striking desert flower with whom Wolf enjoys a brief romantic dalliance.
Neither of those two characters serves much purpose in Road To Paloma. All attempts to make the audience care about Cash and his spiky relationship with his ex-wife, alluded to during brief phone conversations, ultimately fail because the character is too thinly sketched to register. Bonet brings her innate New Age vibrancy to Magdalena, emerging from a gas station in the middle of nowhere wearing a floral dress and a pair of combat boots like some Manic Pixie Dream Denise Huxtable. She and Momoa, who are married in real life, look spectacular together, but her presence neither enhances nor advances the narrative. There’s the sense that both parts were created to give Bonet and Mollohan, who co-wrote the script, something semi-substantive to do in a film that’s dominated by the force of the Momoa, who’s likable enough here, in part because the narrative practically deifies him.
The real substance of the movie is buried in the subtext behind Wolf’s crime and his mother’s death, which both point to the tribal and federal judicial systems’ failure to punish non-Native Americans who commit unspeakable acts on reservation land. Momoa conveys some of the fear and futility brought on by living in that inequitable environment, particularly in a wrenching scene in which Wolf and Cash must come to the aid of yet another brutalized young woman. But the subject deserves deeper exploration than it gets.
Momoa does capture some scenes of genuine warmth and beauty that suggest he has the potential to develop a filmmaker’s eye for visual poetry; one moment in particular—in which a visit with Mojave friends and relatives leads to a picturesque evening illuminated by sparklers in the hands of young children—is particularly lovely. Too often, though, he lets his desire to create atmosphere with a capital “A” guide him to the point of excess, and he produces shots drenched in too much shadow, and images of a blazing sun that overpower the frame with lens flares. As a director, he reaches too far, too often, betraying just how much he wants to be taken seriously. He’s much better off when he dials things down and gets out of his own way. But in a movie that’s all Momoa, all the time, apparently that’s next to impossible.