Thursday, 31 July 2014

ROAD TO PALOMA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - A haunting and lyrical directorial debut by actor Jason Momoa

The great cinematic spirit of 70s existential male angst lives in Momoa's directorial debut.

Father (Wes Studi) & Son (Jason Momoa)
Road to Paloma (2014) ****
Dir. Jason Momoa
Starring: Jason Momoa, Robert Mollohan, Wes Studi, Timothy V. Murphy, Charlie Brumbly, Lisa Bonet, Sarah Shahi

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"The government did not pursue rape charges on [Native American] reservations 65% of the time last year and rejected 61% of cases involving charges of sexual abuse of children..."
- THE NEW YORK TIMES, February 20th, 2012

Set against the backdrop of America's continued apartheid and genocide against its indigenous Native Peoples, actor Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) delivers an extremely promising directorial debut with this powerful and cerebral tale of a young man who has extracted justice on his mother's behalf after the law fails to do so. Robert Wolf (Momoa) has already committed his act of vengeance before the film has begun (we experience bits of it in flashback at later junctures), so make no mistake, this is not a vigilante picture in any sense of the word.

Cleverly utilizing the tropes of westerns, biker pictures (notably Easy Rider) and the 70s genre of existential male angst, the picture (written by Momoa and his co-star Robert Mollohan) centres on the final activities of a man who senses that his own end will result in physical pain, incarceration and possibly even death, but in the days leading up to meeting with fate, he seeks both redemption and the opportunity to scatter his mother's ashes in a sacred place that binds her spirit (and his) to the natural world.

Robert is wanted by the law for murdering the man who trespassed onto the reservation, then raped and beat his mother to death (so severely she was facially unrecognizable). Robert's father Numay (Wes Studi) is a local cop and though he's wracked with guilt for being on the job during the horrific crime, he's even more devastated (albeit silently) that he placed his faith in the judicial system. The system, as it so often does, fails the Native People who live on the reservations. Well, it fails them - period, but that's another story.

The perpetrator is never brought to trial, spends one year awaiting official prosecution, then, like so many other White Men charged with vicious crimes against Native women, he's released. Numay sadly accepts this as the Status Quo. Robert does not. The result is that the long arm of the law, which does virtually nothing for Native victims of crime, spends an awful lot of time, money and resources to hunt down Robert for his "crime". Though Robert's a wanted man, Chuck (Charlie Brumbly), the local F.B.I. liaison twixt the Bureau and the reservation, well-knows the score and has intentionally "fucked the dog" on this matter. Kelly (an appropriately smarmy Lance Henriksen cameo) is one mean-ass Bureau head honcho who wants this "murderer" caught, so he enlists Williams (Timothy V. Kelly), his best agent and an even bigger-and-meaner-ass prick than he is to hightail it down there to extract "justice".

Robert's not too phased about any of this. He's come to town to pick up his Mom's ashes for a 500-mile-long odyssey "in-country" where he suspects he'll be unmolested until he can deal with his Mom's spirit-journey. Momoa, as a director, excels at capturing the spirit, architecture, people and topography of the town outside the reservation. It's a one-horse town replete with crumbling old service stations, a sleazy strip club, a country-and-western bar and a whole lot of rednecks, whores and tough-guys. That said, not a single one of them will tussle with Robert. He's more than earned their respect. The same can't be said for his old buddy Cash (co-writer Robert Homer Mollohan), an alcoholic musician who has a bad habit of picking fights he could only win if he was sober.

Soon, the two men are on their motorcycles and blasting free and clear along the highways of America's Southwest and here's yet another superb sequence beautifully handled by Momoa, the director. With cinematographer Brian Andrew Mendoza, he's created an indelible look at reservation life, small town sleaze and now, the film settles almost completely into a state of zen-sickle-ridin' with stunning vistas, gorgeous sunsets and hell, even Monument Valley (a clear nod to John Ford - the legendary director who both exploited images of Native People and eventually made the necessary amends to render works of genuine power).

What I loved most about this movie is that it has so many opportunities to deliver standard cat-and-mouse thrills, chases, action scenes and unbearable tension. It finally, offers, only a smidgen of that. The movie excels as cinematic tone poem - a tribute to land, freedom and at the same time, an elegy to a world destroyed by colonial forces, one that still suffers under the weight of these shackles of a Status Quo that works only for the "ruling class". Momoa himself knows something about this as his blood mixes two very colonized racial ethnicities - part Hawaiian, part Native American. He not only serves as a terrific leading man (he's intense and gorgeous), but he elicits a whole whack of fine performances from his entire cast - especially Wes Studi, who's great as always. It's also wonderful seeing Lisa Bonet again on a big screen - she's gorgeous and a fine actress - and in his own way, Mollohan as Momoa's sidekick, conjures up the spirit of a somewhat kinder, gentler Dennis Hopper.

Road to Paloma is clearly a deep, profound and reflective work. Yes, it meanders, yes it's sometimes too cerebral, yes, it might have been nice if Momoa had subscribed to genre a bit more vigorously, but this is a world and issue that's too often ignored by mainstream cinema. There is, however, one sequence which delivers the goods on straight-up brutal action and we do get a chance to experience an illegal, hidden-from-the-world no-holds-barred fighting match (similar to the one Walter Hill explored in his 70s - 'natch - classic Hard Times, with Charles Bronson and James Coburn). Momoa also offers a genuinely tense climax. It's as inevitable, as it's shattering and is directed with the kind of panache that suggests even greater things from him.

Shockingly, the film bears the imprimatur of the film production division of WWE - yup, World Wrestling Entertainment. Rather than supporting a straight-up genre picture with one or several of its wrasslin' stars, they've backed the work of someone who's a genuine artist and has made a picture that's actually about something. That said, WWE recently secured the brilliant Canadian film artists Sylvia and Jen Soska to direct a picture, so that they backed Momoa in his desire to create a stunning, poetic movie that's alternately joyous and heartbreaking, is perhaps not too much of a stretch, after all.

In the 70s, a picture like Momoa's would have been green-lit by the studios, but these days, it takes truly independent visionaries to back work by equally visionary artists. Big business as pro wrestling is, there's always been a strange sense of independent spirit to their world. Supporting a movie about the independent spirit of America's Southwestern Aboriginal People seems to have made for a pair of very happy bedfellows.

Road To Paloma is available on a gorgeous new Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada and Anchor Bay Films (WWE's partner on the presentation of this film). For those who especially love the 70s-style angst of manly-man work like The Gambler, The Last Detail, Your Three Minutes Are Up, etc. this is a definite keeper. My only quibble is the lack of extra features. There's one deleted scene which is excellent, and interestingly offers something that was wisely omitted from the final film, in spite of its quality. That, however, is it. I'd have loved a commentary track from Momoa, maybe one that was moderated by an academic critic in areas of cinematic representation of Native Peoples. Given the film and the subject matter, this would have been a perfect capper to a really fine film in an exquisitely transferred Blu-Ray. Ah well, who the fuck am I? I didn't produce the damn home entertainment release. Though more and more, I think I should, or at least someone who loves MOVIES as much as I do. [insert smiley face here]

Feel free to order Anchor Bay's Road to Paloma, the great Criterion Collection of 70s male existential angst (America: Lost and Found) and/or some fine literary discourse on Native Issues by Emma LaRocque and others, directly from the Amazon links below (and in so doing, you'll be supporting the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner).