The world doesn’t stop when you’re sick. Bills must be paid. Groceries bought. Movie reviews written. Luckily for me, streaming services have begun producing films that are of the same quality you see in theaters.
Take “Thunder Road,” for example. It’s a Kickstarter-backed film that debuted on Amazon Prime this week and is based off an award-winning 2016 short film by the same name. Jim Cummings wrote and directed both films, and he stars in them as well. The short film is actually the first 13 minutes or so of the feature-length film.
“Thunder Road” is a film that pulls no punches. Its first 13 minutes are kind of devastating, to be honest. Cummings stars as a Southern police officer named Jim Arnaud. He’s just lost his mother, and the film opens with her funeral. He’s been asked to give a eulogy, and well, it’s not like any eulogy you’ve ever seen before.
Jim’s life hasn’t been going well, and his mother’s death seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Jim doesn’t know how to grieve. His eulogy is a mix of sadness over how he treated his mother like crap while he was growing up and random statements strung together awkwardly. His mother was a dance instructor, and he decides a dance to his mom’s favorite Bruce Springsteen song would be a fitting farewell. Unfortunately, the song won’t play, and his strange gyrating doesn’t go over well. Worse, it’s filmed on a cellphone because that’s the world we live in.
Jim’s wife left him a year and a half earlier. His daughter, Crystal (Kendall Farr), doesn’t enjoy being with him. Worse, his wife, Roz (Jocelyn DeBoer), has filed for sole custody because she and her boyfriend are moving to Tuscaloosa. Jim’s life is in shambles. He’s a great cop but socially awkward, likely on the spectrum somewhere. He doesn’t know how to make things work, but he tries so hard.
Once night, as Jim tells Crystal good night, he utters those three words that can mean so much: I love you. Silence is the reply. It’s painful for Jim, and it’s painful to watch. We often think of unrequited love as something romantic, but it can be just as common among family members unfortunately.
And that’s kind of the theme of “Thunder Road.” Again and again, we watch Jim try and fail. Things truly start to come apart, though, when a judge rules in favor of his wife in the custody battle. It’s at that moment Jim’s fully broken and realizes he has nothing left.
Jim is a lonely man. He’s got a friend in Nate (Nican Robinson), who invites him to family dinners and tries to be there. But, Jim just tries so hard and dinners prove awkward. Or, he doesn’t try at all, and he simply retreats into his own solitary space.
“Thunder Road” is portrayed as a tragicomedy, or maybe you’d call it a dramedy. There are moments of humor, but there’s an undercurrent of sadness that runs throughout the entire movie. Jim is alone. He’s not close with his remaining family. His daughter acts out at school and is seen as a problem student. His relationship with his ex is definitely healthy, but that’s the problem. Jim doesn’t have anything in his life that could be seen as healthy.
Cummings is incredibly impressive in this film. I read online that before he wrote “Thunder Road,” he was writing sketches for the online humor site, “Funny or Die.” He’s come a long way.
I’m not going to lie. I love a dysfunctional family drama. “August: Osage County.” “This is Where I Leave You.” “Mommie Dearest.” I don’t know why, but I love these films. Often, they also end up making me cry or leaving me emotionally wrecked, so maybe it’s a cathartic thing. “Thunder Road,” though, took that emotional wrecking to a whole new level.
Jim has all these things inside he wants to say to his mom, but he can’t. He wants to be a better father to Crystal, but he doesn’t know how. He wants to save the world as a cop, but he can’t save everyone. He’s dyslexic, so even the words on a page don’t make sense to him. His story grabs hold and shakes you to the core.
Within the first 13 minutes of the film, you don’t know this guy, but his loss is devastating and you feel it. Maybe it’s because I’m at an age where I know what permanent loss is. Maybe it’s a realization that as kids, my brother and I didn’t see the sacrifices our mom made for us as a single mom putting herself through school. Whatever it is, we feel for Jim, and we root for him.
We also recognize every bad choice he makes when he does. An errant word. Cummings is quite skilled at emoting. We see the pain in his eyes, the tension in his neck, the confusion as he wonders what he’s meant to do next. “Thunder Road” is only 90 minutes, and if your heart can handle a bit of emotional wreckage, it needs to go on your watch list. Cummings might have had to use Kickstarter to fund this project, but judging from the reception “Thunder Road” has received, I don’t think he’ll have that problem again.