Writer, director, and star Cummings has really long takes in Thunder Road. Usually of himself. The film opens with Cummings breaking down giving the eulogy at his mother’s funeral service, which kicks off his life going downhill. Not his mother dying, but the funeral service breakdown. Cummings already isn’t a good public speaker and he’s emotionally distraught and there’s dancing involved. Mom was a dancer. His small city responds by turning him into a viral joke.
Good thing Cummings isn’t very tech savvy.
The film runs ninety minutes. Cummings’s plunge takes up the first hour. He hits bottom and sort of treads water until it’s time for the big finale. Road has a very short third act, which is simultaneously fine—there’s only so much of Cummings’s constant personal failures one can endure—and not what the film needs. It’s what Cummings, star, needs; there’s nothing else Cummings, director, can do on the budget. Any further personal meltdowns would require explosions. But the ending also reveals just how little Cummings, writer, has actually done with the story. None of the other characters are fleshed out. Cummings, director, has great instincts for directing his cast and for how to edit their performances (he edits with Brian Vannucci) to imply depth but never development. It’s all about Cummings’s character. Hence the long takes.
And Cummings’s performance is phenomenal. It eclipses everything else. And probably would if Cummings gave anyone else anything to do.
Nican Robinson gets a bit. He’s Cummings’s partner. See, Cummings is an incredibly unlikely cop and Robinson has to take care of him once the grieving process destroys Cummings. Or does it? It’s never believable Cummings is a decorated police officer much less a still employed one. His temperament is all off. He shows concern for someone else once in the movie—Jacqueline Doke’s a teenage girl out with boys she shouldn’t be out with—but otherwise he’s an egomaniac. Of course, everyone he knows is a shit. The treatment he gets for his breakdown at his mom’s funeral makes every single person in the film unlikable.
Of course, Cummings’s immediately previous relationship with his mom is never explained. Neither is how he ended up married to harpy caricature Jocelyn DeBoer, who has successfully turned fourth grade daughter Kendal Farr against Cummings. Of course they both disappear after a while, which seems like it might be budgetary. Like, even though DeBoer has left Cummings for her divorce attorney, she doesn’t show up in court to see Cummings break down there. Because if there’s a location, Cummings is going to have some kind of breakdown in it.
Some of the issue is the narrative distance. Because Thunder Road is somehow not a character study. Not with the size of the deus ex machina Cummings employs at the end. And the only reason he’s able to get away with it is because of his performance. Otherwise it’d flop.
Cummings’s script is great when it comes to the monologues. His monologues, Robinson gets something close to one… well, no one else. But Cummings’s monologues are great. And the writing for the supporting cast is good too. The script gives them more material than Cummings’s direction lets them have. Everyone’s got to be looking at Cummings at all times.
Thunder Road started as a short film and would probably work better as one. Or a mini-series. The ninety minute film skips over way too much without Cummings able to justify the brevity. He does a lot with his budget, but Thunder Road feels pretty incomplete.
Really nice photography from Lowell A. Meyer. Pretty good soundtrack selections. Cummings’s composition is fine; it’s all about the length of the take and how he and Vannucci cut it.
Besides Robinson, the most personality in the supporting cast comes from Shelley Calene-Black as Cummings’s lawyer in one scene and Chelsea Edmundson as his de facto estranged sister. Edmundson is just thrown in to fill out the runtime but she makes an impression. Farr is fine as the kid. Even though she’s a little shit. And DeBoer’s an adequate harpy ex-wife caricature. It’d be nice if Farr and DeBoer got real characters. But they don’t. Because Thunder Road is all about Cummings.
Cummings’s character is also a bit of a dope, which makes everything about his situation hard to believe. At one point he wrecks his house but it’s hard to imagine how he was able not to destroy it in the previous year he’s been there.
The breakdown at the funeral never feels like an inciting incident but regular behavior from Cummings, which sort of sums up the whole problem. These characters only exist when onscreen, including Cummings.
Good direction, great monologues, and exceptional lead performance though. Thunder Road just never transcends its constraints; worse, Cummings never even tries to transcend them.
Written and directed by Jim Cummings; director of photography, Lowell A. Meyer; edited by Cummings and Brian Vannucci; production designer, Charlie Textor; produced by Natalie Metzger, Zack Parker, and Benjamin Wiessner; released by Vanishing Angle.
Starring Jim Cummings (Officer Jim Arnaud), Nican Robinson (Officer Nate Lewis), Kendal Farr (Crystal Arnaud), Jocelyn DeBoer (Rosalind Arnaud), Ammie Masterson (Celia Lewis), Shelley Calene-Black (Donna), and Chelsea Edmundson (Morgan Arnaud).