The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THUNDER ROAD | The Movie Waffler

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New Release Review - THUNDER ROAD

thunder road review
In the aftermath of his mother's death and undergoing a painful custody battle, a cop's mental state deteriorates.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jim Cummings

Starring: Jim Cummings, Kendal Farr, Nican Robinson, Jocelyn DeBoer, Chelsea Edmundson, Macon Blair

thunder road poster


Writer/director/actor Jim Cummings' feature debut Thunder Road, an expansion of his 2016 short, takes its title from a Bruce Springsteen ballad, but the song in question never features in the movie. The cost of licensing the song would probably exceed the total budget of Cummings' film, if he ever intended for it to appear on his soundtrack. The absence of 'Thunder Road' the song is something of a fitting analogy for Thunder Road the movie, which is about a man desperately reaching for something beyond his grasp, the life he once envisioned for himself slipping through his fingers.


thunder road review

The 2016 short featured Cummings as smalltown cop Jim Arnaud going on an increasingly deranged rant at his mother's funeral, culminating in an interpretive dance number. The feature opens with essentially a redo of the short, filmed in one unbroken take as Arnaud suffers an emotional breakdown in front of a church full of mourners. The Springsteen song is cued up on his daughter's pink CD player, but Arnaud can't get the machine to work and so dances to awkward silence before picking up his tearful daughter and running for the back of the church. "We should bear in mind that we all mourn in different ways," the pastor kindly reminds her congregation, but Arnaud's breakdown has been filmed, and talk of the scene soon spreads around town.

The lack of sympathy for Arnaud's public collapse threatens to harm his chances of gaining joint custody of his young daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr), whom he struggles to bond with. His behaviour becomes increasingly unstable, worrying his partner and friend Nate (Nican Robinson), who does his best to reach out, inviting Arnaud to share dinner with his family and even confiscating the phone used to film the church incident. But Arnaud's mental state causes him to strike out against his partner, thoughtlessly drawing his gun during a parking lot altercation.


thunder road review

Cummings' Jim Arnaud is a cringe-comedy riff on the sort of 'God's lonely men' you find in the work of Paul Schrader. He does his best to be a good man, refusing to sue his wife for full custody of Crystal, to the astonishment of his more cynical divorce lawyer, and he tries his best to be a good father to his daughter. But Arnaud has anger issues, triggered by his refusal to understand why others don't share his particular moral codes. Like Travis Bickle, he 'rescues' a teenage girl whom he finds in the back of a car with two boys, lecturing her as he drives her home, oblivious to how he's slut-shaming her for enjoying a consensual tryst. When his daughter emerges from her bedroom wearing make-up for school, and later when he spots her holding hands with a male classmate, his disgust is positively Victorian. Arnaud wants better from the world around him, but his idea of 'better' is a narrow-minded, outdated one. You may not agree or sympathise with Arnaud's worldview, but it's easy to empathise with his frustration. Who among us doesn't feel the world is veering away from our own personal idyll?

Like its protagonist, Thunder Road is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Occasionally it dials the drama up a notch too far, but there's always heart behind this venture, and in his multi-hypenate role, Cummings approaches his film with the commitment of a filmmaker who isn't taking further opportunities for granted. As an actor, his performance may be a little too grandiose (his voice breaks a little too easily, like a cynical teenage girl who has learned to cry on command when she needs to manipulate her parents), but you can't say he doesn't put it all out there, and he's always compelling to watch. As a writer he has created one of the most memorable protagonists of the year, but his film's touching denouement relies on an unforeshadowed plot beat that feels disingenuous. As a director he has a subtle economy that gets information across without resorting to flashy tricks (the reveal that Arnaud has unholstered his gun during an argument is masterfully done).


thunder road review

What Cummings understands is that cinema is first and foremost about people, and the little moments that expose their humanity. There's an interaction between Arnaud and his daughter that momentarily brings them together through a game of Patty Cake, and it will stick with me forever. There's another small but incredibly affecting moment where Nate calls his wife and asks if she can pick him up from Arnaud's house in a few hours, an admission that in troubled times, sometimes men just need to quietly get drunk together. Like its central character, Thunder Road is a hot mess - a mix of sloppy storytelling and over-emotional drama, but also moments of genuine human insight - but isn't this what directorial debuts are for? I suspect Cummings' next work will be more structured, but let's hope it's also as soulful as this blubbering bow.

Thunder Road is in UK/ROI cinemas May 31st.


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