Bruce Springsteen wrote Thunder Road in 1975, named after the 1958 thriller starring Robert Mitchum. The song tells the tale of a couple looking to escape the ghosts of their past and would go on to be one of the singer’s greatest hits. Channelling the song’s blue-collar spirit and themes of reinvention, Jim Cummings’s debut opens on officer Jim Arnaud (played by the director himself) as he prepares to eulogise his mother at her funeral with his own rendition of the Springsteen classic.
The 62nd BFI London Film Festival ran 10-21 October 2018.
This round-up is published in partnership with the festival’s critics’ mentorship programme.
Dressed in full police uniform, Jim starts his speech off strongly but soon devolves into a stream of consciousness as his emotions bubble to the surface. Fond memories of his mother are interspersed with non sequiturs – “Go Tigers!” – delivered like verbal tics. He prepares to end with his mother’s favourite song but despite his best efforts his daughter’s bubblegum-pink CD player won’t cooperate and he’s left to improvise. What follows are some questionable dance moves and a monologue that seamlessly switches between the heartbreaking and the hilarious, as we witness Jim process his grief in real time.
Behind the carefully coiffed moustache and uniform, Jim’s life is in disarray. He has an antagonistic relationship with his ex-wife, shared custody of his daughter and (as alluded to at various junctures) is struggling with underlying anger issues. Like its volatile protagonist, Thunder Road often swerves from the comic to the shocking – a move that in lesser hands would seem unconvincing or trite. But the script, expanded from Cummings’s award-winning short of the same name, cleverly sidesteps any clichés, retaining our empathy for Jim even in his most unlikeable moments.
We see a man teetering on the edge of doom, his raw fury pouring out along with the tears. “Talking about your problems never helped anybody. Ever!” he screams at a particularly low moment. At times his outbursts hint at deeper-rooted issues such as alcoholism and depression, while his frustrations echo the grievances of the white working class in Trump’s America. Despite his work ethic and attempts at self-improvement, happiness is elusive and as a result he feels shortchanged and hopeless.
At home Jim is attempting to reclaim his role as father to his daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr). In a small but poignant scene, she invites him to play a clapping game, and unable to keep up, he admits defeat. She merely shrugs and returns to her books and in that moment Jim’s vulnerability is exposed. The next morning he surprises her, having stayed up to practise his skills. The resulting look of admiration on Crystal’s face signifies a small but precious victory for Jim who until this moment had struggled to establish a bond with her.
While Thunder Road shares its small-town setting and dysfunctional male lead with many an American indie, it distinguishes itself with a highly accomplished central performance and a confidence of vision. Shifting in tone effortlessly between the comic and profound, Cummings brings a raw energy and empathy to his portrayal of Jim Arnaud. Newcomer Farr conveys great emotional range as Jim’s daughter, showing both the observant nature and characteristic precociousness of a preteen. The sound design is kept sparse and a strong sense of place is established with only a modest number of locations. Cinematographer Lowell A. Meyer discreetly captures the drama, employing a restrained approach to camera movement – a smart move that keeps the attention on the strong performances.
Thunder Road is a richly rewarding character study and announces a formidable new talent in Cummings who comfortably balances his dual role as actor and director. Putting societal expectations of masculinity under its microscope, the film tests the limits of our empathy. It challenges us to understand its flawed hero, revealing the hopefulness that ultimately lies at its heart.