A Film a Week - Thunder Road

It might seem that Thunder Road is a one man show and there is reason to it. Jim Cummings serves as its director, writer and main star playing an off-the-rails police officer Jimmy Arnaud in a down-a-rabbit-hole narrative. The film takes its title from the Bruce Springsteen song from the iconic album Born to Run which becomes a trigger of events of some sorts and was also developed from an award-winning short of the same name in which the titular song plays a key role.

It all starts at the funeral of the protagonist’s mother in which Jimmy’s attempt to give a eulogy goes terribly awkward, completely bashing the social norm with a hint of something sinister about the guy far beyond the usual process of grief. Jimmy gives a weird, meandering speech before he tries to play his mother’s favourite song on his daughter’s broken tape recorder. Instead, hi starts clapping his hands and dancing with no sense of rhythm, leaving the crowd, including his soon-to-be ex-wife Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer, very good) and his “I-couldn’t-care-less” soon-to-be teen daughter Crystal (Kendall Farr, perfect).

This is the point at which the short gets developed into something above the level of quirky tragi-comedy, and it actually goes pretty much down the same path. Trouble rarely comes alone, so Jimmy is pretty much over his head with the personal, family and work-related problems and for most of them it is just his fault. He usually starts playing nice, but soon enough he starts rambling and interfering when not supposed to, loses his mind, over-reacts and goes beyond just making an ass of himself. Even his partner and best friend Nate (an excellent Nican Robinson) has enough of his behaviour.

Will that Coen brothers-style dragging the character through the torture machine stop and how it will play out, it is for Cummings to know and us to see. Composed in several longer, uncomfortable sequences that mask the classical three-act structure, the film relies too heavily in the terms of the ending on a plot twist that does not feel that earned, which makes it a bit too neat and convenient, moving the film from the territory of a provoking, borderline crazy comedy more to the one of a feel-good dramedy and from its role models like early Richard Linklater towards the regular and often applied Sundance formula.

However, there is a couple of reasons why Thunder Road works nevertheless. First, it is Cummings’ acting that finds a fine balance rather than pushing the character too far in the direction of parody and moronic comedy along the lines of the things done by Jerry Lewis, Jim Carey and Adam Sandler. The result is that we as the audience still care about Jimmy and consider him a sort of our guy, even though he is a total fuck-up.

The other reason is a perfectly outline subtext never mentioned in words. That would be an acronym, PTSD, implying the recent events in the American history and the war adventures that simply refuse to cease to exist, crushing the small and simple people involved. For that reason, Thunder Road works also as a perceptive, observant expose on the state of things in the United States on the level more profound than daily politics.

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