Updated: Apr 18, 2019
Thunder Road (2018)
Written and directed by Jim Cummings
Produced by Zack Parker, Natalie Metzger, Benjamin Wiessner
Based on the short film by Jim Cummings
Music by Jim Cummings
Cinematography by Lowell A. Meyer
Edited by Brian Vannucci, Jim Cummings
Production companies - The 10 East, Vanishing Angle
Distribution - Paname Distribution (France)
(1:32) Amazon Prime
Thunder Road has nothing to do with the 1958 Robert Mitchum film of the same name. It’s not about fast cars or moonshine runners, and doesn’t even include the Bruce Springsteen song “Thunder Road” in its soundtrack (although it attempts to do so). The film begins with a 10-minute sequence that is moving, embarrassing, authentic, inappropriate, sad, and hilarious, all in equal measure. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and I’m betting you haven’t, either.
In this opening, Texas police officer Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings) delivers a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. If you’ve ever given or even witnessed a eulogy, you know how conflicting emotions can cause speakers to go off-script and maybe even ramble. We understand this and sympathize with Jim as he meanders through memories of his mother, citing things she did that were both loving and harsh, combined with some of his own regrets. The memories and emotions hit Jim hard and fast, almost as if he’s channeling every experience, thought, desire, and regret he’s ever had, right there in church in front of his mother’s casket. We’ve all met people who, as the saying goes, “have no filter” in regard to their expressions, but Jim has just enough of a filter to wreak emotional havoc. Jim Arnaud is a man attempting to express his thoughts and emotions when he doesn’t have the tools to do so.
Since this is our introduction to Jim, we don’t really know what he was like before this moment. He initially strikes us as a potential hero, someone we want to root for. He’s a good-looking, well-fit man in his 30s, carrying a somewhat distinguished pose in his police uniform, although his mustache may give us cause for alarm. Think of a thinner, fitter Paul Blart, yet one with more issues. In fact, the job of a police officer could be the best or worst career Jim could possibly have, a situation which could go either way at any time.
Not surprisingly, Jim’s relationships are all problematic: he’s in the midst of a custody battle with his ex-wife (Jocelyn DeBoer), he can’t connect with his daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr), and with the exception of his police partner Nate (Nican Robinson), Jim has problems with some of his co-workers. It only takes a scene or two before we realize that Jim’s heart is mostly in the right place, but he’s trying to wield the authority of an Old Testament prophet with the skills of an adolescent boy.
You might have a real quandary determining whether Jim is a man to be pitied or just a total doofus, but you soon realize that he’s both. Yet he’s much more. Credit Cummings (who also wrote and directed the film), whose performance captures the full, complex range of Jim Arnaud, his hopes, fears, frustrations, odd behavior, poor parenting skills, no-filter utterances, and ongoing battle of machismo and tenderness. Cummings’s bravura performance extends far beyond the memorable opening into practically every moment he’s onscreen. Later in the film, Jim delivers another unforgettable scene in front of his co-workers in the police station parking lot, one that - if possible - keeps us on edge more than the opening. The scene echoes Jim’s inability to balance and communicate his emotions at the funeral, but there’s more at stake here. Even though we feel we’ve witnessed this behavior from Jim before, we’re still unnerved, maybe even shaken.
Other scenes show Jim’s weird combination of volatility and civility, particularly in a conference with Crystal’s 4th grade teacher (the superb Macon Blair), a moment of rage when he thinks he’s been betrayed by his partner Nate, and a somewhat quieter, yet strangely telling visit with his sister (Chelsea Edmundson), who couldn’t or wouldn’t come to their mother’s funeral. There’s a disturbing moment near the end of the film involving Jim’s estranged wife that I’ll remember long after the other scenes have faded from my memory.
Thunder Road is far more than the study of a quirky character with anger management issues. It’s also about the concept of masculinity in America in the 21st century. The film doesn’t necessarily attempt to explain, defend, or vilify such concepts of masculinity, but rather shows them at you in a way that’s as unfiltered as Jim himself, allowing you to laugh, cringe, and perhaps cry.
I’ll admit I had a hard time fighting back tears at the movie’s final scene. I won’t describe it to you, but it involves an important piece of information that was only mentioned a couple of times in the film and brings together several elements that convey emotion, freedom, and the recognition that life will move forward. Even if some of those elements slide by you, the impact of the ending is tremendous, giving us the hope that there are moments of grace in this world, moments more grand that we deserve or can even fathom.
Thunder Road is an expansion of Cummings’s short film (13 min.) from 2016. The feature-length version is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Photos: Film Inquiry, IMDb, Festival du Nouveau Cinema, Trailer Addict