Jim Cumming follows a lot of people on Twitter. In fact, as I’m writing this, about twenty-two thousand of them. I am not one of them, but a good friend of mine is, who decided to visit me over the course of the Film Festival Cologne. He told me about a very short, likeable social media interaction with Cummings and his interest in the now fully-fledged feature film Thunder Road after seeing its short film prototype of the same name – a brilliant one-take tour de force. Sure, I had heard about the film’s buzz from Sundance, but the consideration to actually go see it after spotting it on the festival lineup, came only by then. American independent filmmaking is tough, but Cummings found his own way to spread the word by actively sending out screeners and interacting with people. It’s likely a lot of work, but it paid off. And it did not pay off for a letdown – from a cinematic standpoint, Thunder Road is an impeccably crafted standout of recent American independent film.
“Well now I’m no hero | That’s understood | All the redemption I can offer girl | Is beneath this dirty hood”
These lines are from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Thunder Road”, the equally desperate and life-affirming opener of his iconic album Born To Run, a majestic and sweeping realization of well-known blue-collar tales of love and purpose. The song is not only the title of Cumming’s project, but also finds its place in the narrative in the most literal sense as it is the favorite song of the deceased mother of main character Jim Arnaud. At her funeral, Jim gives a speech, which captures his emotional helplessness in a tonally ever-shifting, single take. The 2016 short was completely consistent of this single scene, which showed Jim speaking to the church audience, until he reaches a point where he starts acting out a dance to Springsteen’s song that was so dear to his mother. His dedication in combination with the fully overwhelmed nature of his emotional state, leads to a situation which seems almost tone-deaf on the exterior. He jumps, dances, shouts and in between, he doubts himself. It’s easy to make fun of him – so much is certain, and he is aware of it, caught in an unstoppable emotional paralysis. But as spectators, we know that deep inside, he does it all for his mother, who might understand this strange performance better than any of us. The short film closes on a shot of him that shows him fully exhausted and in the knowledge that he let everyone in the audience down. It’s brilliant filmmaking.
After a successful reception of the short, Cummings decided to collect funds for a feature film version via crowdfunding, which extends on that scene. It worked. What we have here, is a 90-minute feature film that tells us a bigger chunk out of Jim Arnaud’s life and which focuses on how he deals with his emotional problems – in the context of his work as a police officer as well as his position inside of a small-town community and his family life, which now mainly consists of his seemingly unreachable daughter, whose mother split up with him and who he desperately tries to connect with.
The premise might activate a careful red flag in some heads: A story about an emotionally tortured, white cop in America is inherently problematic, as its main character is an extension of a flawed, post-racist judicial system. The debate about this narrative was recently revived by the critical acclaim meeting Martin McDonagh’s newest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, which is one of the most tone-deaf examples of the white-cop narrative in recent memory and which shows an active disinterest in encompassing the real-life implications of its story by oversimplifying every part of the issue.
Jim Arnaud’s journey is much less tone-deaf, perhaps because it never tackles the issues at all. Except for him being supported by the black family of his best friend and thus showing that he is not overtly racist, it completely withdraws from this issue and that is perhaps something that should be criticized, but finally, it does the narrative well, because the whole cop-arc only plays a role in bits and pieces. We get a story about a broken character with a job, which happens to be the position of a police officer. The only itch that remains, is why he was even written as one in the first place. It would have erased the last traces of sour taste this film could have. The components of the narrative dealing with that part of his life, are just slight and show his systematic dysfunction in a way that is easier to dramatize but seems to have worked in several other job settings. This aspect of the film is maybe a bit naïve but never insensitive and doesn’t strip away from creating a character that is universally likeable.
Because in the end, Thunder Road is such a sympathetic and genuinely moving film, that its merits found in its sharp observations and its thoroughly assured craft, overweigh its potential problematic factors. Jim Cummings poses not only as writer/director, but also carries the entire emotional quality of the film in a winning leading part. His performance is back, front and center of the film and gives us insight into a character, who we laugh at in one second and empathize deeply for in the next. It’s a tonal balance act that seems impossible to pull off, but it works flawlessly here. The story never loses emotional heft, but even gains it by portraying Arnaud’s comedic humiliations. We grasp his clash with the world surrounding him and his desperate attempt to find a real connection, which stands in direct conflict with his emotional instability and inability to talk about his feelings. It could not be clearer: He needs to start anew to grow. But how? The connection he yearns for comes in an unexpected form, one of pain – the assurance of this pain being a part long-living part of the two affected lives is palpable. But it also creates a connection – the one thing that makes the hardships of life bearable.
“With a chance to make it good somehow | Hey what else can we do now | Except roll down the window | And let the wind blow | Back your hair”