‘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 of 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. It also houses a timely examination of ‘boys club’ masculinity, and signals 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 – showcasing the tenacity needed to get such a film off the ground. With a substantial producing career already under his belt, the American filmmaker has also made several 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. 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 and traditional methods of ‘making it’ in the industry, ‘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 its darkly farcical tone. This establishes a tangible intimacy between the audience and Arnaud with Cummings especially commanding the screen during his many intricate monologues (a couple of which look absolutely exhausting). Cummings confesses 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 secret weapon. Arnaud’s status as a cop chimes with his want of control over his life. The systemic structures of Johnny Law just don’t seem to apply to the messiness of life, and belonging to such an institution perpetuates the toxic attitudes that limits Arnaud’s world. Cummings disclosed the character is ‘a more pathetic version of myself’ and I certainly recognised unhealthy Arnaudian habits in my own life. 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)