Thunder Road is a virtuoso performance by actor-and-director-to-watch Jim Cummings, reports Dan Slevin.
It’s not often that my usual viewing companion and I finish a film and then have nothing to say to each other, but that’s what happened after Jim Cummings’ debut feature Thunder Road. Partly, that is due to the extraordinary range of emotion that he puts up on screen (a good thing) but it’s also that his film leaves very little room for an audience contribution – everything is up on the screen, so there’s nothing left for us.
Thunder Road is a fresh new entry in the ‘good cop having a bad day’ genre which includes classics like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant and the less classic Woody Harrelson in Rampart. It’s also a vehicle for Cummings himself who writes, directs, co-edits, performs some of the music and stars as Jim Arnaud, a decorated small-town cop whose life melts down after he separates from his wife and his mother dies.
The opening scene – mostly a very slow tracking shot closing in on Arnaud’s excruciating eulogy at his mother’s funeral – should become legendary and the film never quite rises up to meet the expectation that scene raises.
Cummings’ Arnaud is like David Brent with PTSD and a firearm – going from embarrassing blurt to “I’m OK” to angry outburst in seemingly effortless switches of energy and tone. It’s a remarkable performance and you can see why Cummings the director should be so enamoured of Cummings the actor.
But it is relentless and doesn’t offer much space for any of the rest of the cast, despite their quality. It’s also hard to know which aspects of Arnaud’s character can be attributed to what trauma. He’s clearly a damaged little boy (growing up with a driven solo mother) but he’s also clearly a traumatised but unsupported cop who has to witness unspeakable things every day. On top of that, he’s a moustachioed example of what he thinks masculinity should be – physical prowess and supressed emotion. As he all-but screams in a police station parking lot meltdown, “Talking about things never helped anybody!”
Thunder Road won the Best Picture award at South by South West last year and it has taken a year to make it to New Zealand screens. It marks Jim Cummings as a talent to watch but I hope the next film of his that I see isn’t quite so exhausting.
Thunder Road is currently screening in cinemas in Auckland, Bay of Plenty and Otago (growing to Christchurch and Wellington in April).