Thunder Road Review
Grief is strange. It manifests and evolves in a completely unique way - nothing like other emotions we feel during our lifetimes. Grief sneaks up on you; pouncing when you least expect it. Grief makes us behave in ways we didn’t know we were capable of and makes us think things we never thought we would. Grief is desperate and terrible - one of the worst experiences one can ever go through - yet it can also be weird and, sometimes, oddly funny.
Grief, if it isn’t clear by now, is the subject of Thunder Road, debut feature from writer, producer, director, editor and star Jim Cummings. This one-man-show is truly an indie darling - Cumming’s efforts to self distribute the film have been at the forefront of many interviews, and his go-it-alone method appears to be working.
The film gets its name from Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’, a song which is the main focus of the opening shot. Interestingly, this uninterrupted single shot (as impressive as it is moving), was originally a short film in itself which premiered at Sundance 2016, directed by Cummings. He later developed this short into the feature length Thunder Road. Springsteen’s song forms the crux of a eulogy that police-officer Jim (Cummings) is giving for his recently deceased mother. The closest comparison is the cartoon Bojack Horseman giving a speech at his mother’s funeral in ‘Free Churro’, if Bojack had loved his mother. It’s a similar tone - excruciatingly sad yet funny at the same time. Jim goes off in tangents, his grief bubbling up to the surface before he is able to control it. The camera never wavers, the pressure never goes away. A run in with a non-functioning Hi-Fi system only makes matters worse, as does the entire performance being captured on film.
The rest of the film, though perhaps slightly overshadowed by the phenomenal opening sequence, plays out in a similar vein. Not only must Jim contend with the grief of losing his mother, he’s also in the middle of a sticky divorce with his soon-to-be ex wife, and will potentially have to fight a custody battle for their young daughter. Jim is holding on, but barely.
The narrative plot of Thunder Road reads like a soap opera, but Cummings' handle on tone and humour are what makes the film work like a dream. Scenarios that could be played for laughs are not. Situations that could be devastating are lifted with excellent comic timing (the father-daughter hand clap routine is particularly uplifting). Cummings is a delightful presence on screen - Jim is a complicated character, and not knowing quite what he will do next is one of the most exciting things about the film.
Thunder Road, as established, is about grief but it also goes to great lengths to dissect toxic masculinity. Jim’s friend and fellow police-officer Nate (Nican Robinson) is Jim’s only real support system throughout the film - the two of them are close yet even Nate struggles to give Jim what he needs whilst he is suffering. The stress and high pressured environment of their work as police officers is ever-present throughout - a high stakes scene in a local diner is a particularly abrasive scene - and authority figures within the police force are not shown to be sensitive towards Jim’s situation. The friendship between Nate and Jim is fundamental in Jim being able to break through his grief and depression - even though they cannot put their emotions into words.
Thunder Road solidifies what’s behind the desire to create cinema. Cummings' efforts at directing, editing, writing etc, plus his decision to self distribute the film, are all wrapped in the ideology of film-making - what motivates someone to make a film? For Cummings, quite clearly, it’s a drive to tell stories. It’s a motivation that is uncontrollable - it’s something he simply has to do. This comes across in the film - the character of Jim is as relentless at moving forwards. He can’t stop, not even when everything takes its toll - he has to find a way to carry on. It’s not in his nature to lie back and give up, a trait which Cummings shares with his onscreen persona.
The result is an incredibly special film. It’s unlike any film that has come before it, on the indie circuit or otherwise. The humour is bleak, but it doesn’t quite fall into the black comedy genre - it’s far too genuine for that. Cumming’s has made a heartfelt, universal film which should be, and hopefully will be, cherished by audiences and critics alike.
Thunder Road opens in UK cinemas on May 31.