Opening with an excruciating but perversely funny funeral scene, Thunder Road is unapologetic in showing the rawness and devastation death can have on people. Eulogising his dead mother – via a humiliatingly awful song and dance routine – is Texan police officer Jim Arnaud, a deeply troubled man, who over the slow-build of a 10-minute-long take loses his composure alongside his dignity.
The scene is a masterclass in acting, with actor-writer-director-producer Jim Cummings allowing his character to simultaneously be ridiculed and sympathised with; the fragility of masculine performance is, quite literally, on public display. This intense, funny, and emotionally raw start sets a well-crafted tragicomic tone from the outset. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW in 2018, and based on a short film, which won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2016, Thunder Road is Cummings’s directorial debut feature.
Expanded into a perfectly polished 90 minutes, it focusses almost entirely on Jim, who appears to be having a breakdown whilst trying to hold onto custody of his daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr) from his estranged wife (Jocelyn DeBoer). His mother’s death seems to be the catalyst for Jim’s deteriorating mental state, but it’s clear that he’s not altogether a happy man to begin with. Socially awkward, lacking in social cues, unable to process or express emotions, Jim struggles to even maintain basic friendships and his relationship with his cop partner Officer Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson) is at best, strained; meanwhile, his relationship with his boss the Captain (Bill Wise) is at breaking point.
Fragmented relationships appear to be the unifying thread here, and even his family aren’t keen on Jim. There’s a terribly sad scene where Jim drives for half a day to visit his sister Morgan (Chelsea Edmundson), clearly wanting to stay with her, but hides his suitcase in her garden when he arrives. After only a short while she makes excuses and he is forced to depart, picking up his hidden luggage on the way, with another half-day journey back home.
Beyond mourning the loss of his mother, it’s not explained why Jim has such difficulty connecting with anyone – even his daughter, with whom he really struggles – but his inability to form bonds with other humans is seen with sympathetic eyes; he may be full of unrestrained fury, but his loneliness and sadness is obvious to all. The vast grief and pain Jim suffers throughout Thunder Road is disquieting and deeply affecting, but Cummings provides enough comedic light moments to take the weight off, and whilst Jim himself is hopeless, optimism and hopefulness still prevails, and the end result is subtly sweet.
In many ways, Thunder Road is a platform for Cummings’s acting ability, because he gives a tour-de-force performance in a role which requires a lot of vulnerability in the understated script. But it’s also a calling card for his director-producer skills: Cummings himself raised the finance for the film, through crowd-funder Kickstarter, and has self-distributed it too. A hugely accomplished debut, and an innovative approach to filmmaking, Cummings will be one to watch for sure.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack