‘Talking about problems never helped anyone’, decries Officer Jim Arnaud, the crumbling yet endearing core of Thunder Road, debut feature from writer/director Jim Cummings. The film charts the emotional erosion of Arnaud (also played by Cummings), a man accustomed to law and order who’s acclimatising to life without his mother. Hinged on bereavement but imbued with the timing of a traditional farce, Thunder Road makes for bleak hilarity, providing a timely examination of ‘boys club’ masculinity, and signalling a genuinely ‘independent’ voice in a summer saturated with capes and pokeballs.
Cummings is on a UK-wide tour with the film, talking at length at the Watershed’s post-preview Q&A, and showcasing his tenacity in getting the film made. With a substantial producing career already under his belt, the American filmmaker has also made a number of shorts and a 110-page feature film that’s never seen the light of day, so when the original Thunder Road short won Sundance’s Short Film Grand Jury Prize in 2016 it was a no-brainer to adapt it into a feature film. Yet, despite knocking on Hollywood’s door at such a prestigious festival, the major studios weren’t interested in the small production, and the film’s $200,000 budget came mostly from crowdfunding. The studios’ loss is independent cinema’s gain. Unsurprisingly, Cummings is a huge advocate for DIY filmmaking, setting up his own ‘Short to Feature’ lab in Miami for filmmakers in a similar position. His enthusiasm genuinely seems unquenchable, as is his disdain for the studio system, ‘You have to make something good enough for them to knock on your door.’
Nodding to the original short that propelled him into the spotlight sporting a 12-minute unbroken take, Thunder Road’s feature adaptation is a collection of lengthy shots that facilitate the darkly farcical tone. This creative decision is intended to be voyeuristic – giving the audience the time to digest the characters in real time – a technique that works to establish a tangible intimacy between the audience and Arnaud. Cummings especially commands the screen during his many intricate monologues (a couple of which look absolutely exhausting), positing that he finds the ‘breaking point of the human spirit’ dramatically interesting. ‘And if I can humiliate myself in the process that’s great’ he adds with a wry smirk.
The film’s examination of the undesirable ‘macho’ qualities of its central character is, at least for me, its most powerful asset. Arnaud’s status as a cop also chimes with his want of control over his life, belonging to an institution perpetuating certain toxic attitudes and traits in men. The police officer isn’t too far removed from his creator either, Cummings disclosing the character is ‘a more pathetic version of myself’. I certainly recognised unhealthy Arnaudian habits in my own life, and even though they’re not on the scale of Cummings’ unfortunate hero, it’s hard not to imagine others recognising these self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps this is the most commendable aspect of Thunder Road, an accessible indie curio that lures its audience in with its comedic tone, whilst subtly swinging gut punch after gut punch, and potentially resonating with those straightjacketed by ‘man up’ culture. As Cummings softly informed us before the screening, ‘It’s okay to laugh. And it’s okay to cry.’ I’d add one more sentiment – it’s okay to talk about it.
(Thunder Road is released in the UK on 31st May)