Thunder Road (2018)

Directed by Jim Cummings

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Thunder Road is adapted from Jim Cummings’ short film of the same name.  This movie, in fact, begins with a recreation of that original short film, a long take of a uniformed police officer’s grief and desperation at his mother’s funeral (dancing to Bruce Springsteen music).  This man is Officer Jim Arnaud, and he’s having a very hard time.

Like the short film, which was both sentimental and absurd, the movie is a kind of tragic comedy.  Arnaud is a character who will have more than one breakdown, and you will mostly remember him as a tear-streaked, desperate, grief-stricken, lonely, angry young man.  He’s a comic character in nature, like someone you might find on Reno: 911, between his slender build, large truck, somewhat flamboyant nature etc.  He’s a series of contradictions, and this complexity only helps show the depth of the character and the film as a whole.

We open at the funeral of Arnaud’s mother.  She was apparently a very nurturing, kind spirit who ran a dance studio up until 2009, went the extra mile to make sure a handicapped child felt included at school and made sure her son’s dyslexia didn’t hold him back.

We see this all through Arnaud’s eyes.  He believes he wasn’t a good enough son, no matter how upstanding a citizen he seems to be.  Should we believe Arnaud’s version of events, he was an absent son who never bothered to make his mother feel as loved as she deserved.  Based on what we know and learn about Arnaud, however, it seems his self-loathing is a byproduct of his own self-importance.  He’s a well-meaning but hot-tempered, delusional man, small in his own way (reminded me somewhat of Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt) who has a habit of making it all about him.  When word gets around about his performance at his mother’s funeral, he repeats that his behavior was actually quite normal, at least if you know what it’s like to lose someone.

Thunder Road has an interesting balance.  It empathizes with Officer Arnaud, shows him trying his best, but it keeps him honest.  Much of the film is shot with long takes in which, between impressive choreography and patience, we will watch Arnaud unravel.

The character beats do feel a little repetitive, but the performance is wonderful, and I could just watch Cummings’ character melt down over and over again.  As writer and director he seems to know where his strength lies, and much of the film thus seeks to recapture the glory of his single take short film.

That 2016 short film is a wonderful bit of theatre, but from a technical standpoint the filmmaking is clean and simple.  There is a patience to the camera work, but because everything is captured in frame, entire aspects of a director’s arsenal are left untapped.  Going into this feature film you might be weary of whether a new director like this could tell a complete story without relying on such a spectacle.  The short works on its own, but it’s no guarantee the tone, humor and poignancy will translate to a 90 minute runtime.

Thunder Road, though, does work pretty damn well.  This doesn’t feel like a new director, and though Cummings returns pretty often to what made the short film work so well (as he should, I suppose), the film works just as well in more conventional moments.

There’s one scene, for example, in which Arnaud drops his young daughter off at school, then we watch as he tries in vain to communicate with her from inside the car.  He then prepares to leave in one shot, we see her hold a boy’s hand in the next shot, and then when we return to Arnaud he is slamming on the brakes in a cut that I found incredibly funny.  There is another moment involving him saying goodbye to his daughter from the car that derives humor from the timing of the cut between two shots.

These are tools he didn’t play around with in the short film but which make Thunder Road the feature film a very enjoyable experience.  I don’t know why I called it an experience, it’s a good movie.

So the story follows Arnaud in the wake of his mother’s death.  He is in charge of taking care of her affairs, and at the same time he’s dealing with a custody battle with his ex-wife, Morgan (Chelsea Edmundson) over their young daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr).

These varying factors weigh on him throughout the film leading to a stark, dark and somewhat disturbing blow out that gets Arnaud fired from the force and alienates him from his partner and best friend, Nate (Nican Robinson).  This only happens after Arnaud says the wrong thing and loses even partial custody of his daughter to Morgan and her new, silent boyfriend.  Throughout all of this the movie really sings, mostly because there is always a spectacle attached to Arnaud’s grief, but also because the movie isn’t afraid to make him ugly.

As we get to the end of the movie we might wonder just how, if at all, he can turn this thing around.  What ends up happening is a sort of deus ex machina that takes agency away from Arnaud but gives him the ending he wants, specifically custody of his daughter.  It’s a finale that instead of having Arnaud finally rise to the occasion, instead has someone else fail, in effect so he can succeed.

This third act turn is tonally jarring, though I appreciate the willingness to zig when they expect you to zag, and though it’s meant to be tragic, it gives the protagonist exactly what he wants.  It also allows him to make a short speech that paints him as the moral authority in all of this when everything we’ve seen makes it clear he’s going through a lot and still needs to go through a lot to find any balance in his life.

So Thunder Road is an entertaining, painful, sincere portrait of a man struggling with grief and surely a few mental health problems.  Officer Arnaud is a beautiful though frightening mess, and the story is a chaotic spectacle.  The end, however, is aesthetically pleasing (a nice cover of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love) though a somewhat strange bow to tie together something which seems incapable, at least at this point in time, of cohesion.

Btw, Jim Cummings should be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.

Up Next: The Meg (2018), Upgrade (2018), The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

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