Friday, 8 February 2019

Thunder Road: Forlorn in the USA

To begin at the end: the first of refreshingly offbeat com-dram Thunder Road's end credits reads: "Written, directed and performed by Jim Cummings". Out of context, that "performed" sounds a little ostentatious, maybe even pretentious. But coming after 90 minutes of what is practically a one-man show, it's bang on. Cummings is front and centre in every scene of his first feature, which is based on his 2016 short of the same name, and it's a showcase for a wired and wild performance that will either leave you hungry to see what he does next or send you screaming from the cinema like your legs are on fire.
Thunder Road opens with a twelve-minute unbroken shot of Cummings' anxious, skittish cop Jim Arnaud delivering a babbling eulogy at his mum's funeral. This single scene filled the whole of the short film on which it's based, except that here Arnaud's attempt to sing and dance along to the titular Springsteen song is thwarted by a banjaxed CD player; maybe The Boss wasn't as relaxed with the rights to his music as he was three years ago. It works though: the sight of an officer of the law in full uniform, doing a catastrophically bad dance to a song that's only in his head, in front of his mother's coffin, perfectly sets the tone for what's to come.

"Everything went normal," Arnaud later remarks to a colleague of his bananas funeral performance: neither the first nor last hint that he may have some deep-seated mental health issues. The film sees him constantly teetering on the vertiginous edge of a total breakdown, struggling to connect with his pre-pubescent daughter and barely holding on to his job, friends and reality. Throw in an irresponsible ex-wife and a fractious relationship with his siblings and you've got all the ingredients for a feelbad weepie. But Cummings sees the funny side in emotional trauma, and invests the film with an almost schizophrenic ability to make you spit out your beverage of choice laughing just as you were glugging it to numb the pain. As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, Thunder Road walks this tightrope between melodrama and bad taste for its entire running time.
Cummings' performance is remarkable and unpredictable: barking mad at times and bursting with energy, then calming right down for some genuinely affecting quiet bits. There's a hint of early Jim Carrey in his most manic moments, but without the showboating. Arnaud is a complex ball of resentment, enraged by his own inability to deal with life, and that manifests as explosions of frustration peppered with fleeting glimpses of love and humility. There are other actors in the film, but Kendal Farr as his sassy daughter Crystal is about the only one allowed to make an impact.

Cummings uses Arnaud's personality disorder to take an affectionate look at male bonding, the abrasive nature of familial relationships, the blind terror of raising a teenage daughter and the permanent threat of repeating the mistakes of the past, but never foregrounds or labels the character's problems to the point where they become the focus of the story. Thunder Road is about real people dealing with real problems, usually quite cack-handedly, and skilfully avoids mawkishness with unexpected lols and an underlying sweetness that's never allowed to get cloying.
So to end at the beginning: for a second or two, the first shot of that first scene shows a hymn sheet on a piano. The words "He who would valiant be" are just about discernible before the camera pans away, and an hour and a half later you realise this could easily have passed as an alternate title for the film. Arnaud is desperate to show the world he's a man who can take everything life throws at him, but bravery isn't just about facing your problems, it's about facing yourself too. He's the hero cinema needs right now, brought to life by one of the most original new voices in independent filmmaking.

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