Thunder Road is a showstopping debut for writer/director/star Jim Cummings
Adapted from the award-winning short of the same name, Thunder Road is a dark comedy drama unlike anything you’ve seen. Veering wildly from uncomfortable laughs to powerful monologues, the film is a shot in the arm for low budget (under $200,000) filmmaking. While its audacious narrative and inconsistent tone don’t always pay off, Thunder Road is a stunning breakthrough for director, writer, and leading man Jim Cummings, who might just be the Next Big Thing in American independent cinema.
Opening with an updated version of the original short, Thunder Road begins as Officer James Arnaud (Cummings) attempts to give a eulogy for his late mother, only to ramble on about his childhood, repeatedly burst into tears, and perform a music-free dance routine to Bruce Springsteen’s titular song (Cummings finds a creative way to avoid playing the unaffordable track). Sadly, things only get worse for Arnaud; he’s in the middle of a painful divorce, his teenage daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr) resents having to visit, and he’s been forced into an extended vacation from work due to his unhinged behaviour. Can James overcome his bad luck and solipsistic worldview to find some hope?
Using long, unbroken takes and heart-on-sleeve monologues, Thunder Road works best as a showcase for the talents of one-man filmmaking army Cummings. Though his direction is intense and unflinching, it’s his performance that is likely to remain seared in your mind. James Arnaud is a fascinating, complex creation. Too tragic and unhinged to laugh at, yet too strange and awkward to take seriously, Cummings plays James as somewhere between the ranting narcissism of David Thewlis in Naked and the slapstick buffoonery of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. Many will highlight the grandiose elements of his performance, like the eulogy and a public argument with his fellow officers, but it’s the quieter moments like his silent joy at bonding with Crystal that really make Cummings’ performance so special.
Working wonders with his miniscule budget, Cummings offers no shortage of memorable characters and setpieces. Blue Ruin star Macon Blair has a terrific cameo as a nervous school teacher who faces the full brunt of James’ mood swings, while Nican Robinson does excellent, sympathetic work as James’ only friend. However, the debuting filmmaker can be rough around the edges, spending so much time observing his own character that he fails to flesh out a key character; during the final ten minutes of the film, Thunder Road unleashes what should be a powerful plot development that ultimately doesn’t work due to a lack of build-up or believability. It doesn’t spoil the film (Cummings wins us back with a beautiful final shot), but it’s a misjudged twist that seems morally questionable at best.
Despite making a few ill-judged choices in the screenplay and devoting perhaps a little too much time to his tragicomic cop at the expense of supporting characters, Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road is a fascinating and powerful feature debut. You’ll be impressed by the unbroken takes, controlled tone, and risky character choices, but it’s ultimately the sheer spirit and fearlessness of Cummings as a filmmaker and actor that carry the film. If Thunder Road is anything to go by, this will be the start of a phenomenal career.
By Harry J. Ford
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