“My mom didn’t believe in any of this,” says the man in the police uniform, standing in front of the open casket. His name is Jim Arnaud. Even if he wasn’t in his work clothes, you’d sense he was a cop: the ramrod posture, the alpha-aggressive politeness, that mustache. His mother has just passed away and he’s listing off her accomplishments, thanking the friends and family who’ve shown up to her funeral. Then he mentions Mom’s lack of faith, gesturing around the church, and it’s the first sign that something is … odd. The eulogy starts to take some odd turns; an anecdote about her generosity turns into a tangent about dyslexia and being bit by a mentally ill kid. The camera keeps slowly creeping up closer to him as he goes on and on; it feels like the frame is caging him in. Forced smiles give way to rage grimaces, then sudden-cloudburst crying jags. He keeps fiddling with a tiny pink boombox. He is clearly not handling this well.
And then, as he’s sifting through pathologies, he namechecks the Bruce Springsteen track “Thunder Road.” Mom loved this song, he says. She used to croon it to him when he’d go to sleep. Now, in front of all these people, Jim is going to return the favor. He goes over to the boombox, except it won’t play. You worry that he’s just going to smash it to pieces with his bare hands. Instead, he begins to do an interpretive dance that he’s choreographed, sans music. Occasionally, he’ll offer comments (“It starts out, and there’s a harmonica …”) but mostly it’s him silently doing jazz fingers, swooping arms and Broadway chorus line moves. It ends with a weeping Jim hugging his preteen daughter in his arms before he finally sits down, glaring at his child, the mourners, the world.
This single shot, which opens Thunder Road, runs unbroken for almost 12 mins. (It also makes up the short film of the same name that earned kudos at Sundance in 2016, though he actually sings the Springsteen song in that one — and it is glorious.) Words can’t adequately do it justice, though describing the sequence does help prepare you for the 80 or so minutes that follow: a character study that tempts you laugh and/or cringe, only to then invite you to step inside the mind of a man beset by anger issues, inarticulated pain and a penchant for meltdowns. It is funny. It’s also a raw nerve of a movie, uncomfortable and tender and beautifully empathetic to its a-hole protagonist. And it’s the product of one writer-director-actor who’s been making short films on the microindie fringes for close to a decade and with this, his second feature, makes you feel like you’ve stumbled across a singular voice. Or, to paraphrase another writer talking about his first encounter with the man behind the title’s tune: I have seen humanistic American filmmaking’s future, and its name is Jim Cummings.
Yeah, we know, that old hyperbole again — but the movie that this 31-year-old has gifted us with is the sort to inspire those kinds of swooning hosannas. (Just ask the SXSW festival jury that awarded it the top prize earlier this year.) After that funeral scene, we follow Arnaud as he meets up with his partner Nate (Nican Robinson) and freaks out during a drunk-and-disorderly call; he’s not even supposed to be on duty, since a recent unhinged encounter with the chief did not, apparently, end well. His personal life is also a shambles, especially when it comes to sharing custody of his daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), with his ex-wife. You can see him desperately wanting to bond with her and failing, one more connection he just can’t seem to make. Every encounter, whether it’s with Crystal’s teacher (Macon Blair) or a judge or a teen hanging with some “real slickers” in a mall parking lot — he’s exactly the kind of police officer to use that sort of antiquated tough-guy term — tends to end badly. There are a lot of one-sided conversations, with our man overexplaining things and inadvertently spilling TMI tidbits while folks try to patiently make sure he does not blow his top.
On paper, Thunder Road sounds like a hard sell — so we’re supposed to sympathize with some God’s Lonely Man type with unresolved anger issues, much less a possibly violent one with a badge? But Cummings lets you see how this fractured guy, someone who’s trying to untangle a legacy of wrong turns and emotional instability, is trying to achieve some sort of peace and clarity through all of his clouded, fucked-up feelings as well. He doesn’t downplay or sugarcoat Arnaud’s less-than-positive attributes, but he doesn’t want to turn him into a stock bad guy, either. You get the sense that this gentleman with the square jaw and the outta-left-field outbursts is trying to live up to some sort John Wayne ideal of masculinity (notice how he blurts out the cowboy’s name at weird moments) and can’t reconcile that notion with how broken he feels. Beneath the nervous chatter and public breakdowns is a human being — sad, pathetic, paternal, confused, caring and worthy of a second chance. Cummings plays him as such.
And the movie is full of unpredictable zigs and zags, from a dinner at his partner’s house where Arnaud tells a breaking-and-entering story to a handslap game with his daughter that ends in a moment of unexpected, unbridled joy. (He also punctuates the scene with a sight gag that’s quietly brilliant.) Awkward moments sidle up to tearful ones, followed by comic bits of business that range from goofy to borderline gallows-humorous. Cummings has a real sense of timing in his filmmaking and performing, but he’s not a showboater, either. Even that virtuoso single-shot opening bit is less look-ma-no-cuts then letting audiences see the disintegration happen in real time. His flavor of indie cinema is neither gritty nor twee, simply low-key heartfelt.
It’s somehow slightly familiar and still feels like a discovery, in other words — and the same can be said about his movie. It’s a matter of opinion whether Thunder Road is one of the best films of 2018, a distinction best left for listmakers and marketers. (Cue “It, Me” copping to the former.) But I can say it’s one of my favorites, the sort of experience where you walk out of a theater 90 minutes later and feel like something inside you has shifted two klicks to the left. All the redemption it can offer is beneath the dirty hood of this flawed hero. And at its best, Cummings’ character study makes you feel like that’s all you really ever need out of a story. It’s that good.