“Thunder Road” makes cringe comedy from despair

Jim Cummings’ deeply discomfiting comedy Thunder Road takes its title from the majestic opening track of Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough album, Born To Run, but its spirit recalls the Boss’s throatier cries from the heart and yawls of confused blue-collar emotion.

In a terrific opening scene (basically a remake of Cummings’ award-winning 2016 short film of the same title, with one key change), a Texas patrolman named Jimmy Arnaud (Cummings) takes to the front of a church to deliver an improvised eulogy for his mother. He is the only one of three siblings to have made it out to the funeral, though we don’t know why.

It’s obvious that he doesn’t want to be there either. His rambling, devolving 10-minute monologue slips from thank-yous and reminisces about his problems with dyslexia and his mother’s love of Bruce Springsteen (specifically “Thunder Road”) into flop sweat and meltdown, breaking into ugly, fully-body crying and finally a bizarre, silent interpretive dance of despair.

Like the best moments in the film, it walks the line between cringe comedy and sincere anguish. We see the mustachioed, nicotine-gum-chewing Jimmy as a man cornered, on one side, by a social obligation to say and do something meaningful, and, on the other, by an emotional survival instinct that tells him to run and hide.

His life is a mess of frictions.

He’s going through a divorce; his 10-year-old daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), is getting in trouble at school; and though he still thinks he’ll share custody of the kid with his venomous ex, Roz (Jocelyn DeBoer), the deck seems stacked against him. The one-sided, one-dimensional supporting characters are the weak spot of Cummings’ script.

But we still get the sense that Jimmy’s problems are self-made. He is incapable of admitting that anything is truly wrong: not to his tireless, caring partner (Nican Robinson) or the rest of the guys on the force; not to Roz or the family-court judge; possibly not even to himself.

Instead, Jimmy swings from playing nice to completely losing it—from soft-spoken chitchat to outbursts and death threats—and back again, with pathological apologies (“I’m sorry if I committed a hate crime against you”) and overcompensations in between.

Cummings’ style is theatrical, sometimes employing whoppingly long takes. But it owes as much to the man-child freakouts of Will Ferrell and the comedies of boiling frustration of Jody Hill as it does to the stage. (For what it’s worth, Cummings’ performance is reminiscent of a Will Forte character.)

Whether Thunder Road itself has something meaningful to say is an open question, though the way Jimmy draws a gun during a climactic scene suggests that Cummings has some ideas about the state and reflexes of American policing on his mind. Through a combination of caricature and psychological portrait, subtle touches and howls of impotent, uniformed rage, his film offers a memorable depiction of a man ill-equipped to deal with or direct his feelings—probably not all that different from the rest of us.

Thunder Road has received oodles of festival awards, including the Grand Jury Award at SXSW.

The film is a singular work. Even though it doesn’t always live up to the promise of its opening sequence, Thunder Road is an exhilarating ride. It announces Jim Cummings as a talent to be reckoned with and dances on the jagged precipice of emotional contradictions. It’s a graceless dance to watch, but delivered with the utmost control and grace.

Thunder Road was shot in 14 and a half days, under budget. It features several long takes, like the shorts, and a few monologues that let Cummings flex his Buster Keaton–on-meth brio. When I asked Cummings about some of the difficulties in shooting the film, he said there weren’t any. He’s confident and blasé about roadblocks.

After building a creative community that had worked together over and over again, their shorthand made for a breezy shoot. But it wasn’t all cream. One role had to be recast eight hours before shooting began. Rain wrought havoc on shooting schedules. Having five producers on the set of an indie is uncommon, but in the case of Thunder Road, it was vital.

“A big part of that, too, was making sure we had as many foreseeable problems out of the way as possible,” Wiessner says.

“So that when something went wrong on set, as is inevitable, we just had the bandwidth to be able to deal with it. You really get into trouble when you are solving issues you could have foreseen.”

After they wrapped, just days shy of Thanksgiving, Cummings spent nearly four months editing. His friend, independent filmmaker Danny Madden, helped him perfect the color correction and sound design. He was secluded, but surrounded by friends—a common arrangement.

Thunder Road played like a dream at the festival, winning the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize. I could describe Cummings’s convulsive, overwhelmed acceptance speech, but it’s better if you just watch.

INFO:

Rating: NR
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Directed By: Jim Cummings
Stars: Jim Cummings, Kendal Farr, Nican Robinson
Written By: Jim Cummings
In Theaters: Oct 19, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Oct 30, 2018
Runtime: 91 minutes
Studio: Vanishing Angle

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR THUNDER ROAD

Philip De Semlyen
In the spirit of many great comedians, Jim Cummings has a knack for taking lines that shouldn’t be funny and transforming them into accidental zingers.

Ed Potton
Such an unapologetic crisis of masculinity will strike some as self-indulgent in times such as these. Yet Cummings is so committed to Arnaud’s tragicomic trajectory… that you can’t take your eyes off him.

Cath Clarke
Cummings presents us with a guy whose heart is in the right place – he just can’t control himself.

Jake Wilson
The film shares something of its hero’s self-involvement. If you can accept that, however, Thunder Road is an impressive one-man-show.

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