The Booming Brilliance of ‘Thunder Road’

by Warren Cantrell on October 16, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Rock Fist Way Up]

A tragi-comic exploration of masculinity, fatherhood, and loss, Thunder Road is nothing short of remarkable. Composed of equal parts humor and despair, the film works for a number of reasons, not least of which is the unmistakable humanity running through its core. Fearless without any hint of recklessness, heartbreaking yet devoid of sentimentality, and honest in ways that most films don’t dare to be, Thunder Road can’t help but to rip one’s heart out (in the best possible way).

The film opens in a funeral chapel, where policeman Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings) is giving a eulogy for his mother. Flailing around in a stream-of-consciousness ramble that peppers in heartfelt reflections with profanity and interpretive dance, it’s clear within the first five minutes that Jim isn’t the most well-adjusted individual. Emotionally stunted and hampered by impulse control issues, it seems like his badge is the only thing keeping him afloat in a world that has drifted past him. On the streets as a policeman, Jim seems to have some purpose and direction, yet in all other aspects of his life, the man appears entirely out of his element: like a slow kid in an Honors class.

Nowhere is this seen with more clearly than in Jim’s relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer), who is trying to squeeze Jim for whatever she can. This constriction includes custody of their daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), who already splits time equally between her two parents and is beginning to act out in school as a result. Already in a fragile state because of the death of his mom, and pushed further because of this new threat to his partial-custody of Crystal, Jim struggles to come to terms with a life that is crumbling around him. And while he’s rarely successful in this regard, there’s something admirable in the man’s earnest struggle to keep up with everyone and everything.

Despite the serious nature of the narrative, Cummings manages to keep the tragic absurdity Thunder Road light. This all starts with his performance as Jim, who is perpetually on the verge of tears, and is just smart enough to know how broken of a person he really is. Whether it was his mother, his job as a cop, or just a miraculous set of circumstances that all aligned to make it so, one gets the sense that Jim has never had to grow up, and is only just now being forced to. This isn’t an indictment of his upbringing, community, or even the world, but rather an honest reflection on what it means to wake up one day and realize that you’re lost.

It could be a person who has lost their job, gotten out of a relationship, or endured a death, but this feeling is universal, and Thunder Road gives it a body and voice. Cummings also wrote and directed the movie, developing the material from of a short film born out of the opening eulogy scene. His performance as Jim has the feeling of a well-worn sculpture whose every edge and crease has been smoothed over from multiple, thoughtful passes. Jim is a mess, to be sure, yet his actions and outbursts all feel earned, and are laid into the fabric of the character with precision.

Whether it is an uneasy dinner with his partner, Nate (Nican Robinson), or a parent-teacher conference that feels more like a hostage negotiation, Cummings plays Jim with a tender balance of juvenile Id and adult ferocity. The script allows for just enough exposition in the margins to give weight to the events that follow, building to a crescendo that feels wholly earned and appropriate to the world Cummings has created for Jim.

For reference, the character work in Thunder Road is reminiscent of the films of Martin McDonagh, who specializes in outwardly hard people whose tragedy rests in their possession of just enough intelligence to grasp their failings, yet seemingly not enough smarts to do anything about it. Indeed, Officer Jim Arnauld would be right at home in Ebbing, Missouri or Bruges, where his hardened exterior would find good company amongst stunted man-children struggling with an absent sense of purpose. The scope of Thunder Road might be smaller or narrower in comparison, yet the weight with which Cummings’ performance lands is no less pronounced.

Although Cummings does most of the heavy lifting in Thunder Road, he is aided by the sterling performances that surround him, starting with Nican Robinson as Jim’s patrol partner. Their relationship is an uneasy one, but it functions from a bond born out of brutal necessity and compassion. This friendship could just as easily be one that acts as an accessory to Jim’s narrative arc, yet their relationship crackles with a complicated, unspoken tenderness that jumps off of the screen. Adding to this, although Farr is young, she nails her scenes with the breezy composure of a seasoned pro, and bounces well off of Cummings despite the emotional complexity of their interactions.

A small movie with massive reach, if Thunder Road was a piece of cake, it would be bursting with flavor in every bite. Shaped well, thoughtfully conceived, yet without a hint of ostentation, the film manages to nourish as well as satisfy. The first feature film by Cummings, who is no less impressive in front of the camera than behind it, this is the beginning of what will almost certainly be a long and successful career as a triple-threat writer/director/actor. In terms of directorial debuts, Bradley Cooper might be getting all of the attention right now, but if one is looking for a no-bullshit, real-deal birth of a star, look no further than Thunder Road.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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