Movie Review: Comedy/Drama – Thunder Road

Directed by Jim Cummings

Starring Jim Cummings, Nican Robinson, Kendal Farr, and Jocelyn DeBoer

They Have Meds for That

Officer James Arnaud (Jim Cummings) is a simmering pot of emotion. Distraught over the death of his mother, a one-time dancer and dance instructor, he eulogizes her in a wigged-out, 10-minute, rambling rant of regret, comic pathos, moaning cracked-voiced grief, and naked insecurity, capped by a bizarre dance set to his mother’s favorite song, the Bruce Springsteen classic “Thunder Road,” or rather, his description of the song’s lyrics, as his portable pink stereo refuses to play the music. This scene, which opens Cumming’s feature-length directorial debut, Thunder Road, is simultaneously funny, quirky, and sad and somewhat difficult to watch. But Officer Arnaud’s inability to maintain control and his sudden tangents into the irrelevant are endearing and understandable. Not everyone, as the pastor reminds her audience, grieves in the same way.

But Jimmy, we soon learn, is as easily given to sudden fits of rage as he is to outbursts of grief. One moment he’s normal, the next he’s screaming angrily. In another he’s a blubbering mess. He’s equal parts Jeckyll, Hyde, and Veronica Cartwright. All he really wants is to take care of his daughter (Kendall Farr). But his soon to be ex-wife (Jocelyn DeBoer) has left him for another man and he has difficulty connecting with the child. His recent angry tantrums have angered his captain, who orders him to take a week off. His lack of control only makes things worse. And now his wife is fighting for sole custody. His life is spinning out of control.

Thunder Road is the dream project of actor, writer, and director Cummings, who based his movie on his own acclaimed 10-minute short. Acquiring funds for the feature-length movie through a Kickstarter campaign, Cummings made the film for a scant $200,000. The film debuted in March at South by Southwest, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for a Narrative Feature and has since won numerous other festival prizes. It’s easy to understand why. Thunder Road is a surprisingly accomplished and entertaining work. Cummings treads, with the skill of an old pro, the high rope between humor and serious drama, a difficult feat for any filmmaker or actor. His script is tightly focused and well thought out, filled with telling details and subtle nuances that initially seem irrelevant but come back later, giving the film a satisfying depth.

To Cummings’ credit, none of the characters in Thunder Road ever mention the word “bipolar” or the name of any other disorder that may be afflicting Jimmy. This film will not become a phony, socially conscious treatise on mental illness. It remains a character study through and through. His wife does remark, during an argument, that he needs to get help, but the line is delivered almost as a throw-away, the snide remark of a bitter ex. And only once more in the film does anyone suggest that he might need professional help. But Jimmy refuses to admit he has a problem, though his denials are tempered with facial expressions that suggest that even he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. His best friend and partner on the force, Nate (Nican Robinson) repeatedly expresses concern, inviting Jimmy to dinner with his family. But again, Jimmy refuses, insisting all is fine.

Jimmy is such a likeable and well-meaning guy, that his pathetic attempts at denial, initially seem funny, even while they make you wince. It’s a testament to Cumming’s ability to control tone that Jimmy continues to be sympathetic even as he becomes more violent. We see that he loves his daughter in a couple of charming, smartly written scenes. And we see his professionalism, courage, and compassion as a cop. Though his bombastic and forced self-importance is again subject for comedy and ridicule. One night, while on patrol, he catches a  half-dressed 16-Year-old girl making out with two young men in the back seat of a parked car. He becomes alarmed, despite the girl’s insistence that she’s fine, persuading her to abandon the two “slickers,” his term for boys who think they’re “slick,” and let him take her home. His instincts are later justified when he sees the girl at his young daughter’s school, indicating she’d lied about her age. But as the film gradually moves from comedy to straight up drama, his behavior becomes less humorous, more obsessive, his outbursts scarier, most notably in a violent moment in front of his daughter’s teacher, whose revelations about the girl’s learning difficulties cause him to erupt in self-blaming anger. Jimmy is never violent toward others, but his behavior feels threatening.

While Jimmy’s relationship with his daughter is central to the film, it’s his relationship with Nate that is the most affecting, providing a sweet testament to the power of friendship. It’s Nate who offers his emotionally “drowning” friend a hand out of the water. He’s played beautifully by Robinson as a man who must carefully balance his family life with the needy, unstable friend whose crisis has become a burden on him as well. Farr is memorable as the daughter, although her face is strangely hidden for much of the movie’s second half. But it’s the performance of Cummings that sticks with you. He reminds you of one of those square-jawed, arrogant cops who on the surface may seem overly impressed with himself. But when you get to know him, you see it’s just an act. Officer Arnaud is a good soul. He just needs help. The uncanny way in which Cummings’ face moves from calm assuredness to quivering insecurity, his mouth widening into uncensored grief, only to move back in an instant, is seamless, bizarre, and strikingly beautiful.

There are the odd moments here and there. A lack of reaction shots, particularly in an extended freak-out scene later in the film, seems strange. It draws more attention to Jimmy, but he already has that. It seems at times like the vanity of an overzealous actor/director. Or perhaps Cummings’ budget restrictions have limited the use of extras. Still, most of the film rings unerringly true. It’s only at the end that an out-of-blue plot twist seems slightly false. Lacking proper foreshadowing (if there is a hint, I didn’t notice it in two viewings), it plays like a plot device meant to set up the film’s resolution. But it does lead to an important revelation in Jimmy, and it nicely sets up the film’s crushing final shot. There is hope, but no easy solution to Jimmy’s issues.

Thunder Road, for all its awkward comedy, ultimately scores as a poignant drama. It proves you don’t need multi-million-dollar budgets and big stars to make an impact on audiences and critics. And it demonstrates the power of crowdfunding to provide talented unknown artists the opportunity to get their projects made. Cummings’ next film will have a bigger budget and higher expectations. His foot is in the door now, but it’s up to him to keep producing quality work. He’ll have his work cut out for him. But for the present, his opportunities seem endless. He may never have had the same chance in an earlier decade. That’s why this is such a great time for indie filmmakers and people like me who love these little films created by passionate and eager young filmmakers with fresh stories to tell. Thunder Road is currently available for download and streaming. I beg you to find and support this “little movie that could,” and any other low-budget indie gems waiting to be discovered by mainstream audiences. It’s worth the effort and we will all be better for it.

Rating: 87/100