It’s impossible to talk about Jim Cummings’s debut feature without talking about it’s 10-minute-long single take opening scene. It is a static shot that slowly glides onto the protagonist Jim Arnaud (played by Cummings himself), a 30-something cop standing in front of a memorial service for her mother trying to make peace with her sudden passing. The man stands with his daughter’s pink boombox struggling to play his mother’s favorite track by Bruce Springsteen.
While he fails to play “Thunder Road” wishing to give a nice little homage to his mother, he also literally melts down in front of the entire church awkwardly dancing on a tune that isn’t even playing. It is a scene that evokes uncomfortable laughter but Cummings’s incredibly understated direction and performance fixate the audience into feeling a deeply engraved grief that is stilted in this broken man’s heart. The film never quite rises to the high on this incredibly powerful scene but it sure as hell makes for a raw, darkly comical character sketch of a man burdened by realities that simply push him towards giving up.
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Based on the 2016 short film of the same name, “Thunder Road” is about Jim, a mustached motor-mouthed cop who is more confused about his ability to perceive things than understanding emotions. Mostly a one-man show both behind and in front of the camera, Jim Cummings doesn’t just humanizes the character but also placidly investigates his dampening fall with incredible finesse. His understanding of the human condition can be visibly seen from his naturalistic, blackly comical structure and a use of drawn out single takes that puts the audience right in the protagonist’s viewpoint even though his sense of looking at things is quite different from them.
Crippled by an uncontrollable rage, sloppy single-headed decision making and a bad example of an extreme fuck-up, Jim is not your everyday cop. Cummings manages to flesh him out in an exact sense by drawing a parallel between the insanely broken and confused Jim with his understanding working partner Nate (Nican Robinson). These side characters, including the one played by the girl who plays Jim’s daughter convincingly, serve as catalysts to divert the entire focus towards Jim’s mental collapse.
Which is why the film becomes a warm and unusual blend of comedy and sadness. Cummings piles up series of despair-ridden incidents for Jim but never overstuffs the narrative to make it look redundant. The rage and anguish in Jim’s character are beautifully orchestrated when he himself realizes how he has fucked up a situation exactly after he is done doing so. It’s a very peculiar and small facial expression that Cummings uses that implicates that the character’s human tendencies are just heightened and not lost.
Much of the films girth lies in how well Cummings manages to channel the grief through his character’s idea of trying to be still and not thinking too much. The result is, of course, an incredibly broken man who is in constant denial of his situation and the reasons behind it. The direction is so beautifully subtle that it does a great balancing act between a feeling of tragedy towards Jim and driving him into anxious comedic situations where he deals with everything in his life.
“Thunder Road” has its share of flaws, though. For instance, when on a late night patrol, Jim finds a teenage girl hanging out with boys who in the natural sense might be taking advantage of her. While he escorts her home, Jim both gets the higher moral ground and a possible narrative high point too. However, we only see the girl in another instance which doesn’t serve as a reminder or a trigger or both. It’s almost strange because it feels like Cummings wrote about 5 pages of script for this girl and later decided to drop her off unattended.
Jim Cummings, who wrote, directed and acted in the film deserves a pat on his back as he manages to channel out a very assured, matured and understated character sketch of a broken man on the verge of mental breakdown. His understanding of the process of grief pits this little indie as one of the best debut films of the year.