Thunder Road is an extended version of the 2016 short by Jim Cummings that was loved by Sundance. The short was recreated by him as the first 12 minutes of this feature film, featuring similar elements but ultimately made to be a better fit to lead into the rest of the feature. The single shot of Cumming’s character Officer Jim Arnaud making an awkward eulogy in front of his mother’s coffin sets the tone of his character – a man dealing with a crisis that’s about to turn into multiple crisis’ that he just can’t deal with.
A dead mother; a year-long separation from his resentful wife; a daughter he only sees on weekends; a custody battle he’s losing; a job that seems to aggravate his anger and emotional instability. Arnaud can barely keep what little he has left together, and he can’t even connect with his child Crystal (Kendall Farr) who would rather be at her mother’s (Jocelyn DeBoer) despite her questionable parenting skills.
Cummings is a brilliant actor in the main role of his own film that he also wrote; he clearly has a thorough understanding of this character and understood how he wanted him to be portrayed, drawing from his own persona for added authenticity and nuance. Arnaud is fairly awkward (especially in his words) but in a nervous way, almost like he doesn’t know how to be a human. He tries to converse with Crystal but he often ends up saying the wrong thing, despite an obvious desire to be a good parent and a clear compassion that is unfortunately mixed up with all his other unprocessed feelings. Even in his police work he can’t control himself, and his best friend Officer Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson) is turned away by him by Jim’s own self-proclaimed pretence that he’s coping.
We are placed near the beginning of Jim’s breakdown at the funeral, where he jumps about in soundless dance and gets side-tracked and embarrassed; he says odd things and eventually ends up in tears. The camera is above the funeral audience, framing Jim in the centre, mirroring the cinema audience and the screen we watch. We become the funeral audience in that instance; they don’t know whether to laugh or cry or look away from Jim’s unstable scene, just as we don’t know how to either, in that sequence and for the rest of the film.
Thunder Road is a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy. The comedy comes from the exact same source of the sadness – Jim’s behaviours and reactions. They are a well-merged combo, reminding you that sometimes the only way to cope with tragedy is to laugh. Cummings’ own nuances he adds to the character and the moments of tragicomedy that he delivers perfectly pulls at your heartstrings and makes you relate to even the more absurd scenes, such as his public stripping of his entire police uniform in front of his co-workers as he screams and shifts from one tone to another in a split second. His emotional meltdown is a verbalisation of his sharply changing inner thoughts, and his tonal shifts fit the narrative shifts of Jim’s real life. He never has the opportunity to unpack the feelings from his mother’s death before he is forced to deal with possibly losing his daughter, both in custody and in relationship.
The narrative often feels slightly jumpy in terms of tempo, but that fits Jim’s emotional tempo. He never has a time to mourn, just as we the audience don’t have to time keep up with Jim’s outbursts. He falls into a depression in an instant, then suddenly comes together in a show of stability that is just a fallacy as Jim, again, defies his own desire to be a calm and collected parent and police officer. These jumps are visual too; an evening spent drinking with his friend sees Jim fall asleep in his chair in a dark room, but wake up lying on the grass as the morning sprinklers turn on. These two shots, one after the other, illustrate a fluctuating mental state that is out of Jim’s control.
The constant up and down is sharp and cutting, but Cummings delivers it without fumbling or losing his grasp on the character he’s created. To watch his character deal with all this almost feels perverted, like we should look away, but that’s just because we all understand the feeling of our own life harassing us.
There needs to enough filmic darkness to lift up the little moments of lightness, and the film ends with this. A tiny act of Crystal finally connecting with her father – seen in her leaning forward to watch a ballet with Jim, only the second occurrence of interest shown from Crystal to Jim – has an impact so great for an action so small. Jim’s tearing face and familiar wincing smile shows this achievement and desire for their father-daughter relationship to only get better from that point onward, despite something traumatic having to have happened for them to get there. Again, the dark comedy is balanced perfectly in Thunder Road, and that is done because of the director’s distinctive characterisation and writing that translates through his brilliant performance.