Thunder Road, loosely inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s paean
to smalltown struggles and dreams, is an odd fish. New Orleans native Jim Cummings, who wrote and directed it (as well as playing ukulele on the score), trades in uncomfortable comedy and dominates the screen as all-American moustachioed cop Jim Arnaud, both a wide-eyed innocent and a moderately frightening livewire: Ned Flanders with a gun. There is a story here, just about; it’s chiefly interested in Arnaud’s wavering mental state, Cummings all but providing a one-man show.
When we meet Officer Arnaud he’s already unstable, on the verge of cracking at a funeral. Thunder Road sprung from Cummings’ 2016 Sundance-winning short of the same name, featuring him as Arnaud delivering his mother’s eulogy in church, a 12-minute unbroken take of him struggling to hold it together while paying tribute, his mind cascading with grief, pain and regret, gruelling self-reflection spilling out indiscriminately. The feature’s opening almost exactly replicates the short, and from there Arnaud unravels further, forever at threat of being crushed by life’s various cruelties. Prone to increasingly volatile outbursts, he is both martyr and madman, a confused, wounded lamb. The film is essentially a 90-minute meltdown.
A tour de force turn from its creator.
Taking its cue from the Springsteen song, its landscape reflects a feeling of being hemmed in and a desire to break free, flirting with some societal themes: pressure, machismo, rage, with Arnaud’s anxiety and uncertainty mirroring what many of us are feeling right now. He’s a work in progress, a balancing act, as is the film itself, straddling the comedy/drama borders. It’s a bit of a reach, Cummings dropping what is clearly a comic character into a less comical world, in the hope that events will imbue him with pathos. As such, you’re often uncertain if you should be laughing with him, or at him, or even at all. Ultimately, though, it is all of the above, all at once — and somehow that’s fine.
All the eccentricity aside, the pathos breaks through, and it’s the little flickers of real emotion that make Thunder Road win you over. Cummings zeroes in on the little things, which are, of course, the big things: a confused, brittle Arnaud bonding with his self-assured daughter over a game of patty cake, culminating in Cummings very subtly signifying joy, is incredibly sweet. Thunder Road is a tour de force turn from its creator, who delivers an unpredictable performance we’ve never quite seen before. Sat in the cinema, too close for comfort, you can’t escape him, and, amazingly, you don’t really want to. It is cringingly, rewardingly intimate.