Should we call the manufacturer?
It’s unsurprising to learn the opening one-shot of Jim Cummings‘ SXSW-winning film Thunder Road is itself a revision of the writer/director/star’s Sundance-winning short of the same name. The sequence therefore plays like a mini-movie with its escalation of emotion, honest humor in tragedy, and subtle exposition readying us for the aftermath to come. Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings) is a man struggling with the anguish and regret he feels as the reality of his mother’s death hits him like a ton of bricks—his macho, decorated hero veneer of authority simply can’t mask it any longer. He’s a mess standing before family and friends without a clue as to what to say, rambling about inappropriate stories until unleashing an unforgettable interpretive dance routine with tears streaming down his face.
The funeral director urges him on as he constantly interrupts his own train of thought to ask if he’s doing okay or if he’s ruined everything. His ex-wife (Jocelyn DeBoer‘s Ros) watches with embarrassed shock at what’s transpiring, their daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr) breaking down at the sight of her father’s devolution while someone in the front row has his camera out to capture the whole wild affair for YouTube. What’s difficult to understand within the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of second-hand humiliation is the reality that Jim’s mother would have loved this touching memorial from a son who raised hell as a child. Here he was finally embracing a side of himself he never could while she was alive, honoring her legacy by admitting his many shortcomings.
The sequence epitomizes the whole with a natural mixture of comedy and heartbreaking truth. The way Jim’s life is currently unraveling could have easily become fodder for laughter at his expense, but Cummings refuses to exploit these characters since the drama’s strange discomforting authenticity can earn as much amusement through empathy as it could from exploitative measures and broad comedic strokes. A lesser work would have made Ros a monster that didn’t deserve custody rather than the problematic but loving mother Jim can still appreciate despite his anger towards her as a wife. He could have been drawn as the put upon saint the world conspires against rather than a flawed, mentally unstable man destroyed by desperation—one whose uncontrollable emotional pain is systematically ruining his life.
We’re watching him dismantle everything he built despite the hard road of adolescence his eulogy reveals. His volatility earned him a week’s leave from the force to process his mother’s death, but he ignores it by picking up his partner (Nican Robinson‘s Nate Lewis) after the funeral to accost a homeless man causing trouble. Jim feels as though his identity is being stripped away: no longer a husband nor son nor on-duty cop and quite feasibly no longer a father once Ros sues for full custody in order to move Crystal out of town. Plans to reopen his mother’s dance studio risk implosion, redoing his daughter’s room earns ambivalence, and his mounting frustration foreshadows his doing something he won’t be able to take back.
It’s a true powerhouse performance as Cummings shows his uncanny ability to traverse the delicate roads of a public nervous breakdown with pathos and humor. His reactions to his own mistakes are priceless whether in the aftermath of a bad joke no one laughs at or the latest example of pent-up rage unleashed during precarious scenarios: in front of a judge, his daughter’s teacher (Macon Blair), or his best friend Nate. It’s this recognition of his own failings that lends such heart to the proceedings even when he oversteps the boundaries of decency, heroism, and humanity. Jim is a self-aware pushover who’s transformed himself from a “slicker” after that life only left him with regrets. Sadly, his “nice guy” persona isn’t faring much better.
We know he’s trying, though, regardless of his stubborn refusal to receive real help. It takes multiple tries by Nate to get him to come over for dinner and Crystal’s perpetual refusal to open up before realizing he’s coming at things from the wrong direction. His intentions are pure even if his methods are less than perfect (see his handling of Jacqueline Doke‘s teenage Jocelyn), his desire to put his life back together legitimate despite his own inability to open himself up to the journey that demands. Every time you think Jim’s hit rock bottom, Cummings reveals there’s always a level farther down to go. And with some expert camerawork, the dramatic severity of his full psychological collapse will have a crowded theater holding its collective breath.
The ending may be a tad easy (if tragic), but I won’t lie and say I didn’t appreciate it after so many roadblocks along the way. Sometimes fate deals you a winning hand no matter how morbid or opportunistic it might prove, rock bottom somehow becoming an open road devoid of attachments wherein the future can be written anew. As the title alludes to the Bruce Springsteen song Jim’s mother loved so dear for what it said about escape and rebirth, we must often push everything aside to discover what truly matters. All those things we did because we thought they were right or what others wanted from us become distant memories as we pick and choose those things born from the chaos with love. Life goes on.