In the jaw-dropping opening sequence of “Thunder Road,” Officer Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings), a uniformed cop in his early 30s, saunters up to the front of a church to speak at his mother’s funeral. Technically, you would call the speech a eulogy, but the mildly absurd free-associational confessional ramble that pours out of Jim feels more like a reality-show outtake — which makes it, in fact, one of the most authentic eulogies you’ve ever seen in a dramatic feature.
In an unbroken shot that lasts for 10 minutes, and that zooms in on its protagonist almost imperceptibly, Jim talks, he jokes, he dances, and he tries (and fails) to play Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” on his daughter’s pink toy boombox. Mostly, he gets lost in squishy, half-articulated memories of how he didn’t value his mother, at least not in the way he should have, when she was alive. Each time another memory hits him, he cries — not in that decorous, polite, movie-sobbing way but in that ugly-face, clenched-jaw reality way, the emotions overtaking him like a spasm. More than just the crying, we see the thoughts that are triggering the tears. There’s no way on earth that any actor could fake this — it’s pure Method despair.
It is also, in its way, so discombobulated that it’s a little bit funny. Yet that doesn’t mean “Thunder Road” is a comedy. In too many indie films, comedy — or, more accurately, a kind of ha-ha reflex — has become a light form of aesthetic decadence, a way of trivializing characters and situations by letting the audience feel that they’re above them. (For years at Sundance, the “dysfunctional family comedy” was basically a smug hipster sitcom minus the laugh track.) Comedy, in bad indie films, can be the enemy of vulnerability (it’s the commercial hard shell around it).
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But in “Thunder Road,” Jim Cummings, who also wrote and directed the film, doesn’t cover anything up. He exposes the character he’s playing like an X-ray. He rips the band-aid off a certain kind of contempo middle-class heartland despair, and the result is an altogether uncanny small drama. At “Thunder Road,” you’ll giggle at moments, and you’ll also be moved, but mostly you’ll know the precise crazy-sane reality of who this man is.
Jim is trim and handsome, with a conservative haircut, but he has the kind of mustache that no one wears anymore, and it makes him look like the doofus version of a straight-edge psycho from the ’70s. (Think Paul Snider crossed with Paul Blart.) Jim is no psycho, but he’s obsessed, fundamentally, with himself, and part of the comedy is that he doesn’t know that. He’s a dazed narcissist who has made a mess of his life, but because he can’t put the needs of the people he loves ahead of his own, he’s lost. He has a good heart, but he could be the poster dude for not knowing what he doesn’t know.
Jim is getting a divorce, and three days a week he takes care of his daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), who’s in the fourth grade. Yet he can’t connect with her — his affection, though genuine, is met with an indifference he lacks the parenting skills to outfox — and he’s completely clueless about the fact that he’s about to get royally screwed over by the divorce-industrial complex. Everything is falling apart for him, yet he’s phoning in his life.
Yet Jim’s impulses are good; there’s a sweetness that comes through his fixated gaze. As a cop, he tries to protect people, including a teenage girl who’s fooling around with two guys in a mall parking lot (nothing illegal about that, but Jim knows that it’s wrong), and one reason he’s going nuts is that his impulses to do good never seem to pay off. He’s still living in a Boy Scout world of his imagination.
“Thunder Road” is an expanded version of the award-winning dramatic short that Cummings made in 2016, and the movie is liberated from the clanking machinery of three-act arcs. Yet it’s beautifully staged; Cummings is a born filmmaker who plants seedlings of raw drama that sprout in unexpected and moving ways. The film plays out as a series of snapshots from Jim’s life, exploring his experience on the police force — he’s a decorated officer who isn’t shy about using his gun and often seems to be starring in some “Keystone” version of “Cops” — and also his testy encounters with his sneering estranged wife (Jocelyn DeBoer), his distraught sister (Chelsea Edmundson), his highly supportive African-American police partner (Nican Robinson), and his daughter’s teacher (Macon Blair), who explains to him that Crystal is a problem child, always acting out, a warning that Jim can’t take in because it would get in the way of his everything-is-fine posture.
What keeps bubbling to the surface, and screwing Jim over because he won’t express it, is his rage. And then the rage finally comes out — in the police-department parking lot, in a startling scene that’s like a bottoming-out echo of that opening funeral, with Jim now literally stripping off his armor. It’s very much a cri de coeur of the desperate, backsliding white American male, the guy who “played by all the rules” and still, in his own eyes, got handed the short end of the stick. But the whole reason Jim’s life is a mess is that he won’t cop to his own part in landing there. Deep down, he has never stopped being a kid — that’s the form his white male privilege takes. “Thunder Road” is the story of a good cop who’s a lost soul because he remains, beneath it all, a clueless angry geek. The film is about how life conspires to make him grow up.
This is one of the first dramas to dig deep into America’s heartland crisis — the crush of the spirit that has emerged from a collapsing job market and drug addiction and the underlying loss of faith. In “Thunder Road,” Cummings creates an indelible character who is all tangled up in that disaster, but with a stubbornness that turns into something like valor, he wriggles free of it. He saves himself by becoming a human being. It’s a relief to stop laughing at him, only to realize that you may want to cry for him.