Adapting his own 12-minute short from 2 years ago, director Jim Cummings – who also writes and stars – heads into feature territory for his electrifying debut: Thunder Road.
Opening with an impressive, unbroken 12-minute shot at his mom’s funeral (it’s this scene that Cummings gave the short film treatment), we’re introduced to Jim Arnaud (Cummings) – a decorated police officer inept of properly conveying his emotions. He articulates his sorrow through poorly-constructed sentences and a dance to his mother’s favourite song – the namesake of the film’s title. It’s a sequence that’s seamlessly both utterly hilarious and devastatingly heartbreaking – quickly establishing the tonal juggling act the film will aim to pull off for the remainder of its 90-minute runtime. From here, things only continue to go more awry for our leading man – from job trepidations to divorce settlement and a custody battle for his daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr) – leading Jim to a personal meltdown.
What ensues is a brilliant and very uncanny indie about a character trundling downwards, peppered with great comedy and grounded with emotion throughout and anchored by one of the year’s best leading performances. This is an astute character-study; by the end, you feel like you really know Jim – not the “glossy Hollywood-ised Jim” either but the version full of despair and heartache. As a writer, Cummings doesn’t hold back; he exposes his lead character like a nerve, punctuating every scene with an authenticity that can only be felt. As a performer, Cummings exposes himself; he gives such a vulnerable, desperate performance that is so meticulously timed and genuinely crafted that Arnaud leaps out the screen. The way Cummings cultivates this narrative is deft and impeccable; he articulates this story with heart and humour alike. But to define this film as solely a comedy or a drama would feel like a disservice to all it is; yes, there’s witty humour in abundance and the penchant to match each comedic beat with hard-hitting emotion but it blends both tones in a way that acts to elevate the narrative and not the other way around. The comedy never contradicts the film’s vulnerability and vice versa; in fact, Cummings pulls off one of the most impressive tonal juggling acts – going heavy on both laughs and gut-punches and seamlessly weaving the two and hitting every note so hard. It’s a true testament to Cummings’ craft to be able to let every moment work and breathe as well as it does.
On paper, Thunder Road doesn’t exactly sound like an instant hit – a zany, decadent character study of an idiosyncratic police officer with anger and emotional issues that makes comedy from its anguish. It sounds almost like a self-indulgent, sensationalist piece; in the hands of anyone else, maybe that’s how it looks. But Cummings just clearly gets it. Instead, Thunder Road is a barnburner. It’s gut-bustingly hilarious, emotional, exciting and surprising all at the same time. It all works thanks to razor-sharp writing that understands its characters and its tones and just lets everything simmer; there’s relatability and sweetness to Arnaud that makes him an easy protagonist to root for. But, moreover, he’s also angry and upset and complex and real. It’s the realism the film strives for that makes it sing; whether it’s the relationship between Arnaud and his daughter or his best friend (Nican Robinson), Cummings constantly keeps the proceedings feeling authentic and permeated with a sense of relatability – despite an, at times, wacky sense of humour and the absurdity of his leading man – that is so full of heart and passion, you can’t help but just love this offbeat piece.
Thunder Road review by Awais Irfan, Glasgow Film Festival 2019.