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Non-Review Review: Thunder Road

Thunder Road is a sweet, affecting piece of work.

It seems a little bit disingenuous to describe Thunder Road as a comedy. Much has been written about how the boundaries of the genre have shifted in recent years, particularly on television where form seems to dictate genre more than content. (Tom Hanks even took time to spoof that shifting trend during an appearance on Saturday Night Live.) There are funny moments in Thunder Road, often well-observed and organically delivered, but even those humourous beats underscore the film’s deep-seated melancholy.

Thunder Road is a profoundly human film, but one that feels very tragic. Focusing on a divorced police officer recovering from the recent death of his mother and facing the prospect of losing his daughter, there’s a lot of genuine emotion surging through Thunder Road. Jim Arnaud is a man who is very clearly lost at sea, oblivious to his own mental state even as friends (and bystanders) watch him crumble before their eyes. The film’s humour often seems like an attempt to stave off tears, as if an awkward laugh might offer a reprieve against the slow sense of mounting dread.

Thunder Road is an impressive piece of work, a film with real heart.

A grave mistake…

To be fair, there is a familiar sense of what might be termed “indie quirk” to Thunder Road, a sense in which the film adheres to the structures and conventions of American independent cinema that are particularly associated with the festival circuit; the particularly deadpan humour that prevents the drama from seeming too straight-laced, the eccentric central character developed with an eye towards psychological realism, an emphasis on low key naturalism ahead of conventional narrative rhythms.

Hunter Harris has identified a number of tropes of the modern American indie, and Thunder Road typifies a couple of those; although it might be reductive to describe the film as focusing on “a white person stricken with ennui” it is not unfair, there is a lack of clarity “whether the movie is a drama or a comedy” and the movie does include of an “impromptu musical jam session.” That said, there is a sense in which writer and director Jim Cummings is keenly aware of that.

An adorable (ch)urchin.

Thunder Road makes a point to open with what might cynically be described as the “big Sundance moment”, to frontload its sense of quirk. More than that, Cummings structures the film so that the rest of the film flows organically from that beat, rather than being interrupted by it. More than that, Cummings is a gifted writer, director and performer. In placing that beat front and centre, he ensure that Thunder Road lives or dies by how well he executes the expected quirky musical beat.

Cummings does a remarkable job. While the opening scene is structured like something from any other twenty-first century American independent film, Cummings delivers it with enough confidence and charisma that it works. As a director, he holds that sequence on a long and steady shot carefully pushing in on his protagonist to create a sense of mounting dread. As a performer, Cummings plays Arnaud as both oblivious enough for the scene to seem plausible and also human enough that it registers on an honest emotional level.

A new (po)lice on life…

The execution of that opening scene buys the movie a lot of good will. Cummings brings Jim Arnaud to life, as both a writer and an actor. As a writer, Cummings sketches Arnaud as a multifaceted and complex individual, a figure who is consistently well-intentioned but ill-equipped to confront the challenges of day-to-day living. Arnaud is a man falling apart, but insistent that he is holding it all together, which is a very tough mix to play. Indeed, Arnaud’s career as a police officer adds an awkward tension to that set-up, creating a fine line for the film to walk.

It is to Cumming’s credit that he strikes that balance. Arnaud seems like a genuinely decent person, albeit somebody oblivious and uncomfortable. Even in those small human moments when Arnaud is petty or vindictive, such as in conversation with his ex-wife, he seems like he’s trying not to be a bad parson. The script cleverly uses the characters around Arnaud to enforce this point indirectly. While the film never clumsily has these characters awkwardly state how much they love him, it makes it clear through their actions. There is a lot of compassion in Thunder Road.

Dance, dance, revolution…

That compassion and humanism goes a long way. The script makes it clear that Arnaud is a walking disaster, but avoids feeling mean-spirited or crass. Witnessing his partner’s complete collapse, Nate Lewis calls his wife. “I love you so much,” he tearfully confesses. “We are so lucky.” Repeatedly, it seems like Arnaud himself is in active denial about the issues through which he is working; the film suggests that Arnaud is often unaware of what he is doing, of how his body has responded to a heightened stress situation.

Cummings’ performance is key here, bringing an incredible vulnerability to role. Arnaud is consciously trying to do the right thing, but seems unable of actually accomplishing anything. Standing before a judge at a custody hearing, he stubbornly refuses to return to his seat; he is not motivated by arrogance, but by fear. “I’m afraid I said something stupid, and now I’m going to lose my daughter.” This is Arnaud in a nutshell, the man trying not to say or do anything stupid because he understands the consequences, but somehow unable to stop himself until it’s too late.

Partners in crime fighting.

Over the course of the film, Arnaud finds his facade cracking. Much is made of how comfortable Arnaud feels in his police uniform, wearing it even when off-duty at social functions as an expression of his identity; of the person that he wishes to project out into the world. However, over the course of the film, his uniform is first torn, and then stripped from him; figuratively and then literally. It is not a subtle metaphor, but it is an effective one.

Thunder Road allows Arnaud to be vulnerable and never holds back in its portrayal of his weakness and his fragility. There is a candour to it, an empathy running through the film. Thunder Road understands that Arnaud is – by almost any measure – a failure, but it finds something reassuring in the fact that he keeps trying. The film’s funniest joke – and perhaps also its saddest – finds Arnaud delivering a monologue about the importance of the eponymous song to his deceased mother, and then failing to get the song playing on his little stereo. However, he still dances.

That is perhaps the strange, sad warmth at the heart of Thunder Road, the suggestion that there’s relief to be found in dancing, even if the music isn’t playing.

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