Thunder Road (2018)
Written & Directed by Jim Cummings
“It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win” – Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road.”
We meet officer Jim Arnaud at his mother’s funeral. He’s the only one of her three adult children in attendance and is not processing this loss well. He stands with no remarks prepared and sobs his way through the story of how she anonymously donated a thousand dollars, so a mentally challenged girl at his school had a place to play during recess. This story meanders down narrative side streets, sharing that this same girl bit him once, how his mother recorded herself reading all his textbooks in college to help him with his dyslexia, and how she was a non-believer. Then Jim attempts to play Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” one of her favorite tracks. His daughter’s pink and purple boombox won’t work so he’s forced to silently act out the dance he had planned to accompany the song. Throughout this entire affair, he goes from barely under control to manically sob. Jim is a man in an awful place.
Thunder Road is the work of writer/director/actor Jim Cummings who plays Arnaud. Where this could be another indie dramedy to toss onto the pile of SXSW’s annual churn of quirk, Thunder Road presents us with a remarkable voice that speaks in shades of familiarity yet feels profoundly clear and new. You will inevitably feel the work of Jody Hill and Danny McBride who have made their bread and butter on rural character farce (Eastbound & Down, The Foot Fist Way). Cummings dips his toes in that water but instead comes away focused far more on the pathos of Arnaud. We laugh in the moments of profound awkwardness and cringe as he attempts to and epically fails to communicate his feelings, yet we want Arnaud to make it out of this mire. We see the genuine goodness in his character, that he is not merely a buffoon, and we want life to be better for him.
Cummings doesn’t handhold us through the exposition of Arnaud’s fragmented life, he throws us in the deep end and allows the details of the story to unfold as we experience them. Very quickly we learn that in addition to the passing of his mother, Arnaud is dealing with a messy divorce where he struggles with sharing custody of his nine-year-old daughter. His attempts to make the world a better place for her, while and despite dealing with his emotional burden grounds the character. Arnaud is a complex character with severe anger issues; he isn’t an innocent when it comes to his problems. The best thing Cummings does is to not gloss over this fact, and give us a fully realized human character.
Arnaud represents a broad swath of men raised to repress their emotions or only allow them to be released in the form of anger. He’s going through a depth of sadness his upbringing never prepared him for. There’s no anchor to grab onto and even the brotherhood he is a member of, the police force, abandons him when he finally cracks and puts on a public display of grief. As much as Arnaud appears to have no one as the film goes on, we see that he’s fighting to put himself back together. Slowly but surely he starts listening to people around him and sees the truth in himself and that there is support, yet those are people who are struggling too. Thunder Road is one of those remarkable pieces of human cinema that never discounts joy for darkness or vice versa. It seeks to present a human life as is.