Raphael Duhamel attends the 44th Deauville American Film Festival and reviews Jim Cummings’ remake of his 2016 short.
Jim Cummings’ excellent remake of his own award-winning short film, Thunder Road, surprises by its innovative form and seamless transitions between comedy and drama from the start. The opening scene is by itself a tour de force, shot in only one take. While most long shots impress by their skilful camera movement and effects, the movie’s first ten minutes are excruciatingly awkward, featuring the main character’s clumsy eulogy to his mother that culminates in a silent dance routine.
During this lengthy sequence, Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings) asks an off-screen woman many times if he should persevere and keep talking, to which she responds that he is “doing great”. As the camera pulls in on the protagonist during his speech, ultimately focusing only on him, the audience is drawn to identify with the funeral’s attendants, who are going through the same painful ordeal as them. From this initial chapter on, Thunder Road presents itself as an exercise of empathy for the spectator, who is invited to witness the embarrassing developments in Arnaud’s life, for better or mostly for worse.
The protagonist is best described as a quasi-autistic and unstable police officer. He is mostly well-intentioned, but his fiery temper and objectively bad luck get in his way in the most tragicomic manner, as if his entire existence was set to the theme of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Taking on the role of the anti-hero, he fights for the custody of his daughter Crystal (played by the impressive Kendal Farr) against his ex-wife (Jocelyn DeBoer), with the notable help of his friend and colleague Nate (Nican Robinson). Arnaud’s character is a paradoxical one, fuelled by a highly-developed sense of pride and shame. As a troubled and dyslexic individual, fighting against his bipolar tendencies and everyone against him at the same time, it seems ironically appropriate for his duty to be protecting and serving the people of Austin, Texas. His profession provides him with much-needed authority and highlights his need for a righteous and Christian life, while consequently emphasising his inability to lead such an existence. Simultaneously, it acts as a critique of the police forces’ supposed exemplarity in the United States, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Arnaud’s occupation is equally crucial in his search for redemption in the eyes of his dead mother, whom he neglected towards the end of her life. He attempts to compensate this late absence by being particularly attentive to his daughter, protecting her from the “slackers” threatening her good education.
Jim Cummings also orchestrates Arnaud’s demise behind the camera, with an almost mockumentary style to his direction. Most shots are inspired and well-composed, and the cinematography makes abundant use of natural lighting, which contributes to Thunder Road’s authentic tone and small-budget feel. No character ever faces the camera directly, but the situations depicted in the film only seem to be variations of what one might see in television shows such as The Office or Modern Family. However, Cummings’ humour is never heavy-handed nor slapstick, because it is always followed by a sense of dread which renders the entire comedic effect more distressing than amusing.
One notable example occurs during a poignant scene in which his daughter’s teacher, played by Jeremy Saulnier favourite Macon Blair, explains that Crystal is a disturbance in class. In a fit of rage, Arnaud blames his daughter’s behaviour on his ex-wife, picks up a desk and threatens to throw it against a wall, until Blair’s character points out that the desk is Crystal’s. The protagonist instantly calms down and sits back, while the camera shows the teacher discreetly hiding a pair of scissors in his pocket, in case of another outburst. Another film might have cut shortly after, but the scene continues for a minute or so after this event, letting the tragedy in Arnaud’s story insidiously return and outweigh the comedy. What may have acted as comic relief for the audience conversely translates into a reminder of the grim reality which constitutes the anti-hero’s life.
Cummings’ performance is a memorable one, and he carries the movie on his shoulders without flinching. Going from laughter to tears in a split-second, his portrayal of a cop on the verge of a nervous breakdown never feels forced or overdone, due to the touching subtlety and emotional generosity he provides to the part. His talent as a director undeniably complements his comedic genius, as he seems to be perfectly aware of how and when to use his incredibly diverse set of acting skills. This combination results in an honest and forceful feature epitomising the necessity and quality of American independent cinema.
Thunder Road only seems to fail in its candid and hopeful finale: in an unusually cyclical film which follows Arnaud’s ups and downs, the most tender episodes are always followed by cynical call-backs to reality. Cummings’ decision to ultimately end on a high note ignores that trend, favouring instead a deeply American and wholesome, though ephemeral, conclusion to his character’s road towards redemption.
Thunder Road will have its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on October 10th. Check out its trailer: