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Non-Review Review: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot

I think that Thunderbolt & Lightfoot might be my favourite Michael Cimino film. Don’t get me wrong, of course. I acknowledge and appreciate the director’s work on The Deer Hunter, but it’s not a film I return to on a regular basis. It’s a thoughtful and powerful commentary on the Vietnam War, but it isn’t among my favourite explorations of that particular conflict. On the other hand, while it still has its own serious flaws, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot has a much lighter touch. It’s a film that offers a great deal of depth beneath a relatively accessible surface layer, serving as an exploration of seventies America, but one with significant hidden depths. However, despite his sophisticated work here, Cimino’s directorial début is not inaccessible and works quite well as a hybrid of the “road” and the “heist”movie genres, albeit with a great deal happening beneath the surface.

The road to nowhere?

Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is, as with a lot of Cimino’s work, quite self-indulgent and more than a little relaxed. The movie’s never in any sort of hurry to get anywhere, with a rather luxurious pace. It shares a lot of similarities with any number of Clint Eastwood films from the same period, casting Clint as a cynical rebel against authority, but it refuses to strictly conform to the expectations that such similarities may create. Despite being – nominally – a “heist” film, it’s about an hour before the robbery at the centre of the climax is even properly formulated.

Instead, the movie offers a stream-of-consciousness road-trip, allowing us a chance to get to know the two eponymous character – played by Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. A lot of the charm of the film rests on the shoulders of the two leads. It’s great that Bridges picked up a Best Actor nomination for his work here, and it’s disappointing that Eastwood didn’t. The pair play well off one another, to the point where Bridges feels like the best foil Eastwood has ever been cast against.

Putting his (light)foot in it…

Thunderbolt feels a bit more emotionally open than a lot of Eastwood’s lead roles, and I think at least part of that is due to having Jeff Bridges to play off. There’s a lovely moment, after the pair hijack a car belonging to an insane driver, that the younger Lightfoot finds something on the seat. He quickly confirms it to be raccoon poop. Smirking, Thunderbolt suggests that he hold his hand out the window and let the rain wash it off. “Just remember not to pick your teeth,” Thunderbolt remarks, genuinely grinning. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen Eastwood smile a genuine smile, one that doesn’t seem at all sinister or unnerving. It seems like Thunderbolt is, at least in that moment, happy.

Of course, there is a very clear homoerotic subtext to this movie, as there are with so many “buddy” movies. Cimino’s Thunderbolt & Lightfootdoesn’t try to mask that – there’s no attempt to convince the movie that the two leads are just professionals doing a job, or any such thing. From the moment that fate seems to throw them together, with Thunderbolt dangling out of Lightfoot’s car, it seems like the pair are destined to be together. (Fittingly, despite all the people they encounter on their trip, the movie ends with the two of them alone.)

Burning his bridges…

It is a warm relationship between the two men. Cimino acknowledges the rather blatant undertones by putting Lightfoot in drag during the climax, with the two parodying a hetrosexual couple at a drive-in. Of course it’s Lightfoot in drag – he seems the more liberal of the two, the younger. On being introduced to Thunderbolt, the older quips that he’s “ten years too late.” As the pair watch prostitutes at work, the sage Thunderbolt expresses his rather old-fashioned conservative outlook on life. “Sometimes you have to pay for your pleasure,” he advises his colleague. The child of a new generation, Lightfoot doesn’t acknowledge such strict moral philosophy. “Yeah, well I never paid for it.”

(The women of Thunderbolt & Lightfootare all, at best, peripheral figures. Those with the most scenes and speaking lines are prostitutes. The camera itself seems to linger more tightly on Jeff Bridges’ legs than those of his female co-stars. Even the movie’s sex scene, between Thunderbolt and Gloria, is curiously sterile and purely mechanical. For Lightfoot’s part, the young man boasts about his sexual exploits, commenting on the beautiful asses of various women, but the movie treats him as curiously sexless. He seems unfazed, for example, by the naked woman who comes to the window while he works her yard.)

Practice what you preach…

Of course, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot might sell itself as a bit of a “heist” film, with our two leads executing a daring robbery for a large sum of money, but it really feels like more of a “road movie”, with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot exploring the rapidly-changing geographical landscape of the nineteen seventies. Lightfoot, as the younger of the two, is clearly more comfortable with the changes, while Thunderbolt doesn’t take it quite as well. He’s a man in a world that seems to have forgotten about him. Talking with a prostitute about his time in Korea, she responds, “Oh yeah, I heard about that war.”

Time has changed Thunderbolt as much as it has changed the country where he lives. Discussing his service overseas, Red comments, “He was a hero.” Lightfoot, who has already struck up a bond with his colleague, seems a bit surprised by this. “Hero?” he repeats, seeking to clarify. Thunderbolt wasa hero to his country, but now he’s just an idle drifter, trying to make ends meet outside the system, in a country where even the landscape itself seems to shift beneath his feet.

Thunder struck…

Stumbling across a building he remembers from a long time ago in a place far away, he muses, “They moved it.” Of course, there are practical questions about that move (“why would they move it?” Lightfoot asks, and one wonders how they might miss one key feature), but it works better thematically – America is quite literally not the country that Thunderbolt remembers, where even the buildings themselves are wont to shuffle around while he is not looking.

Travelling across the United States via dirt road, the pair encounter all manner of strange characters who seem to represent a country in sort of silent upheaval, perhaps to mirror Nixon’s ‘silent majority.’ Thunderbolt feels shocked by some of this. “What the hell’s the matter with you, boy?” Eastwood asks a random stranger driving around a toxic car filled with rabbits and raccoons. A woman riding a motorbike responds to Lightfoot’s come-ons by smashing his van with a hammer. (Asked what happened, Lightfoot quips, “Progress.”)

Getting taken for a ride…

Even planning the heist itself, one sense that Cimino was exploring the changing heart of modern America. Thunderbolt works at an anonymous mill, where he is little more than a (social security) number to those running the show. The other three members of his motley crew experience life in suburbia – serving as a night cleaner at a gigantic urban stall, selling ice-cream to spoilt kids on suburban estates or even working as garden labourers on fancy gardens. Lightfoot seems the most adaptable to this new reality, the young turk of the bunch, while the others struggle.

Of course, suburban life is not quite what it is made out to be. There’s a very clear change in the air of which the older generation are not quite aware. Lightfoot seems much more comfortable with the homoerotic undercurrents of their relationship than Thunderbolt, but parents seem out of touch with their kids sexuality. When the gang break into a small suburban house, the mother begs them not to frighten her daughter, “Please, she’s just a baby!” We cut immediately to the daughter’s room, putting paid to her mother’s out-of-touch concern as she advises her lover, “Keep it down, I don’t want my mom to hear!”

The first entry in Cimino’s vaulted filmography…

It’s interesting that the film features our leads overlapping with two other tourists twice – both at the beginning and the end of their journey. It suggests that – despite its considerable landmass – America is really a very small place that these two sets people can bump into one another so easily. There’s also something quite telling about the fact that the film opens in a Church, perhaps the bastion of social and moral conservatism. So it’s fitting that Cimino opens the film by blasting chunks out of one.

Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is a fascinating film. It has a lightness of touch that I think the rest of Cimino’s films are sorely lacking, and Eastwood and Bridges have this incredible chemistry that just anchors the movie during its somewhat stream-of-consciousness moments. It is a Michael Cimino film, so it just drifts idly in its own direction, rather than aggressively setting off to cover certain ground, but that’s not a criticism – it’s just a fair observation. It is a little too indulgent at time, it’s pacing perhaps a little loose, but it’s charming enough to keep the audience’s interest.

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