Jim Cummings’ debut feature comes across as a piece of performance art extended beyond its original parameters, and surprisingly it works at that level consistently throughout its 90 minutes. Extrapolated from an award-winning short subject that has been reconstituted as an opening one-take gambit, the movie feels like a tightrope act, which is why you keep expecting it to fail in a big, dramatic way, but it keeps you going, and that’s because Cummings, who directs, writes, and plays the central character, seems to know exactly what he’s doing every second of the movie.
In the first scene, Jim Arnaud (Cummings), a skinny policeman dressed crisply in his uniform, gives an elegy for his mother at her funeral. Though he has come prepared, he quickly breaks down into a rambling, vindictive, but never entirely incoherent rant that presents the viewer with a character that seems fully formed after only ten minutes. Jim is clearly a damaged individual, though the damage seems to be of his own making. It’s not clear how close he was to his mother, a frustrated ballerina who operated her own dance school in a small Lousiana town, but it’s crystal clear that whatever space existed between them was exaggerated by Jim’s aggrieved view of his position. A college grad who’s convinced he’s stupid, a romantic fool who knows he’s been used by his ex-wife, a loving father who realizes his daughter doesn’t really give two shits about him, Jim is actually too self-aware, but rather than come across as the usual cynical slacker, the kind of character these indie movies tend to present as convicted losers, Jim despairs over how much he has squandered his privilege.
Cummings plays on Jim’s whiteness in a disarming way, making him look like a stereotypical cop — very short hair, 70s mustache, shit-eating grin — but one who breaks under pressure in unexpected ways. An early attempt to intervene in a drunken homeless man’s ravings ends badly for Jim, and it’s obvious his anger issues have become a problem at work. As you can imagine, there’s nothing worse than a cop with anger issues. It’s interesting that Jim’s only friend is his partner, Nate (Nican Robinson), who is Black. Nate seems to be the only person who sees the pain under the anger, and though he’s the target of that rage twice in the movie, he’s willing to catch Jim when he falls.
Thunder Road, which is named after the Bruce Springsteen song (Jim’s mother’s favorite) and not the Robert Mitchum movie, doesn’t really try to be funny, though Jim’s despair is so complete that he often laughs at how pathetic he is. In one scene where he’s arguing for joint custody of his daughter, he offends the judge inadvertently, and you can see a switch immediately turn on in Jim’s brain: I screwed up again. You want to laugh but you can’t. Sometimes pity really is the only proper reaction to an inveterate loser.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
Thunder Road home page in Japanese.