“A daring excursion made by a talented artist always looking for the next big challenge to take on.”
by Ken Bakely
Jim Cummings, the writer, director, and star of Thunder Road, centers the unpredictable range of his character, Jim Arnaud – a police officer who is going through a divorce and processing the recent death of his mother – through numerous explosive monologues or single-take scenes. One takes place during the first scene of the film, in which Jim sobs his way through an interpretive dance (set to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”) at his mother’s funeral, despite the music not playing. It’s an immediate establishment of an uncomfortable and caustic tale, and in the hands of a less-prepared filmmaker, would come off as unpoised and showy. But there’s something more here, seen in Cummings’s uncanny ability to hold shots and entire scenes for just the right effect, wording dialogue with specificity down to the syllable, that unifies the movie’s world under strident tones of bleak humor and unsparing catharsis. It’s a constantly active and energetic exercise in mood and pace, not always perfect in wrapping it all up in the abstract, but a daring excursion made by a talented artist always looking for the next big challenge to take on.
Cummings accomplishes a lot with a little. There are only a few locations and a handful of characters. The story structure is intentionally neither particularly tight or disciplined. Thunder Road’s relationships with time and space is always a little hazy, throwing us off the trail when it comes to minutia. It pushes the idea that this is the same surreal slew of unrefined emotions and scattershot bursts of terrifying abundance of feeling that its main character experiences, as well. His fight for custody of his young daughter, Crystal (Kendall Farr), occupies an overwhelming proportion of his attention, though his skills to that end – both as a level-headed parent and someone who has the poise to win a custody battle – are usually worrying at best. The tragicomedy comes from the clear knowledge that Jim’s trying his best, but nothing has quite prepared him to face the world in a practical sense. Nate (Nicon Robinson), his long-suffering patrol partner, has the stable home life that Jim can only imagine, and his interactions in that context are always in the space between reverential and resentful – and as Jim flies off the handle in parent-teacher conferences, courtrooms, and his workplace alike, we realize that for him, the line between any two moods is heavily blurred.
He’s a man caught between expectations and reality. Cummings employs frequent long takes, lit by neutral lighting and framed in mostly medium and wide shots, to position us as external viewers watching Jim from a distance. But Thunder Road also works at a shatteringly intimate level: never cutting away from Jim’s flights of panic and rage, the movie shows us the conflicted depths of the character’s soul. His ex, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer), is portrayed as vindictive and vengeful, building the belief that the film’s entire world is one where toxic people are always present in some form, and sometimes this is on a mutual level in a relationship. This dynamic, otherwise fascinating, does make the film one-sided in exploring Jim’s possibility of creating an arc over the unambiguous badness of Rosalind, and contributes to a third act plot twist that seems rushed in driving the film towards a climax. But in this, we’re always aware that Jim is developed with a nuance that’s hard to come by in movies, and thus one that keeps a human center, even when the script is a little more slapdash than usual. He lives through immense philosophical cyclones and personal wreckage, and yet this is embraced head-on by a film unafraid to consider every contradiction and development that piles onto his already battered soul.
However, the film is comedic almost uniformly throughout, often in the small details and peripheries as much as it is the broad absurdities of entire sequences. That Jim is, through this maelstrom, a law enforcement officer, adds a pang of stinging social commentary from the get-go, with the same precision and unsettling implication that carries the whole movie; in much the same way that big moments, like having to queasily watch the character come down from his long-winded monologues and meltdowns to stunned observers. Thunder Road makes us feel everything, and does it with an energy that few other films could muster when swinging for fences so far apart in tone and texture that they may as well be on different poles. Cummings takes giant risks in front of the camera as a performer, and behind it as a storyteller. He is a transfixing presence in either case, powering through each scene with a startling ambitiousness that pays dividends, even through the plot’s rough patches or unresolved thematic links. His work is a sight to behold, especially when a line of dialogue comes by that’s so cringeworthy that you want to cover your ears, or a scenario plays out with such painstaking uneasiness that you’d rather look away.