Let me set the scene. My screening of Jim Cummings‘ Thunder Road was rearranged, from memory, at least once. I went from a date scheduled in the middle of April to one at the start of May, close to the release date. Now, this can signal one of two things: that the film is that brilliant its screenings are oversubscribed, or that it’s awful and the closer reviews are published to its release, the better.
I’m incredibly pleased to report that, in this case, it’s the former.
Officer Jim Arnaud’s (Cummings) mother has passed away. Understandably, he’s having a hard time. He wants to give her the best funeral he can, and believes that the perfect send-off would include a performance of his own dance routine to the Bruce Springsteen classic (and her favourite song), Thunder Road. Except the CD player won’t work. And someone in the congregation films the whole, embarrassing ordeal, Jim dancing and crying to his own silent disco.
Whilst carrying the heavy grief for his mother, Jim’s wife Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer) serves him divorce papers (better yet, he’s presented them while at work, in front of his colleagues). She’s filed for sole custody of their young daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr), who begrudgingly splits her time between both parents. Considering his current heartbreak, this news only serves to crush him further, especially now that he has to fund an expensive lawyer to fight his case. All of this on top of a recent move, which he’s yet to make feel homely, and struggling to cope at work. It’s a lot, so it comes as no surprise when Jim finally cracks and we watch as his life sadly, hilariously and beautifully falls apart.
Despite his impressive directorial filmography, including eight shorts and a couple of television mini-series, Cummings is relatively new to the big screen scene. Having worked his way up over the last ten years, Thunder Road is his feature length debut, with the narrative originally conjured into a short film back in 2016. In the three years since, Cummings has grown the story from one about a man’s mission to eulogise his mother, to one about love, grief and mental health (particularly in men).
The opening scene at the funeral is a perfect example of Cummings’ eye for direction, writing and editing, especially given as it’s filmed in one long take, a slow zoom taking us from the back of the room to rest upon Jim’s weathered face. In this time he transforms from a quiet, subdued man who gives off the air of not being too bothered by his mother’s passing, to one who can’t control his torrent of emotions – and all it took was one dance routine. Throughout this I could hear nervous laughter from the audience, as if we all weren’t sure whether we were allowed to laugh at a man quite clearly in pain, but one who is jigging his way through it, all while tears stream down his face.
And that’s exactly how the rest of Thunder Road plays out. It’s 90 minutes of quick quips, touching attention-pulling realisations, and breathtaking heartbreak – in particular, watch for the similarities between one homeless man’s public breakdown and Jim’s, and the hand-clap game scene. Our hearts continuously break for Jim as he hits one hurdle after another, from his divorce to Crystal’s struggle at school, and it cleverly builds the tension. We’re waiting for him to snap, and when he does it’s like a weight has lifted, not just for Jim but for us, too. He finally asks for help, notably from his colleague Nate (Nican Robinson), taking form in a simple yet highly moving scene of ‘maleness’, drinking whiskey together while throwing a ball around in the backyard. The film’s portrayal of Jim as a man’s man is an intelligent move, as it makes his breakdown all the harder to watch. Constantly shrugging problems off, telling everyone he’s ‘fine’, comes to a sudden and juddering climax – can Jim rebuild what’s broken, for himself and Crystal?
I went into Thunder Road knowing nothing. I hadn’t watched the trailer. I didn’t know anything about the story, or Cummings, or the film’s multiple award nominations and wins – current count at 12 wins and 11 nominations. After leaving the screening room, eyes bleary from tears, a smile plastered across my face, I feel I was better for it going in blind. This is an incredibly special and important film and I hope it gathers the attention and love it deserves.