Born To Run… And Stumble
Despite the overall theme of the very splendid feature directorial debut by Jim Cummings seemingly about an individuals free fall, whilst throwing some dance moves, into a profound mental breakdown, in the greater CinemaScope perspective, it’s all about hopes, aspirations, achievements and taking leaps of faith, even when you are in darkness, jumping into what appears to be a deeper darkness, it’s the act that counts.
It’s also the acting that counts, as even though Jim directed (he has previously made a number of shorts), it is his outstanding performance as the central character Officer Jim Arnaud that takes this feature ‘Thunder Road’ (2018) to a whole new level.
Amongst the many other contributions to the film he has done, Jim also wrote it. Originally made as a short (inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name), the subject has been expanded from one central scene into an entire story, all brought together with tenacity, belief, friends, asking established creatives for advice and crowd funding. There is a profound punk DIY ethos to the entire independent adventure that raises it all so beyond what is just happening on screen.
Officer Jim Arnaud is not having a good day, or life. His overbearing mum has just passed, he is separated from the mother of his daughter Crystal, and it looks like he’s losing her too. Add to that, the pink Hello Kitty CD player won’t bloody work, so he can ‘perform’ his interpretative dance eulogy at the funeral. Wrapped in well-meaning, this symbolic moment of affection just comes across as a complete mental breakdown to all watching, and it’s understandable why, as it pretty much is.
Jim’s life once had structure, elements to guide him. His domineering mum, his relationship and his child, and his job that effectively told him what to do, and how to behave every day. Not any more. These have been ripped away from him, and nothing is filling the void except his own internal screaming/flashing thoughts siren of inability to cope. He hasn’t lost his job yet, but his bosses’ order that he takes leave to grieve seems like yet another punishment upon everything else. His anchor to what he believed he once was, has been cut loose and he is set adrift in uncharted emotional and extremely turbulent waters.
He may well have been trained to hold and shoot a gun (though that is also highly questionable), but like us all, he is totally unprepared for dealing with the trials of life. It is this deep humanity and vulnerability sown into every single movement, moment, look and words of Jim’s performance that creates a powerful bridge directly form the character into our own souls. Depending on your experience on life so far, he is us by the grace of chaos. The fact that Cummings makes the central character a police officer is a stroke of genius too, as he successfully humanises one of the most reviled individuals around today.
It starts with a surreal (yet jaw dropping) ‘show’ of affection at the funeral, and it’s all downhill, well more fall completely off the edge of the stage from there. But as in the most darkest moments, there is a safety net of almost gallows humour that tries to save ourselves from our worst versions. Jim frequently tries to laugh off, joke about or cover his internal demise in a sense of mirth, but though they are well-meaning, saving face, or possibly protecting others, in the frenzy he is experiencing they are entirely misplaced, and actually aren’t masking anything, as it’s blatantly obvious to everyone, except himself. He believes the way to survive this chaos is to talk, which leads to some stunning moments of a stream of conscious ‘thinking’ that are a wonder to behold, as Cummings within a single sentence has the capacity to flow through every human emotion known to man, and that’s just one sentence. And of course, which so much talking, there’s no listening going on, and as such, no learning.
Arnaud is decent human being, trying to be the best he can be, but the punches keep landing, spinning his head and perception ever more. Despite it not being its intention, that does resonate hugely in modern climes where there is a huge increase of people, particularly men, who can’t cope and decide to end their lives. This adds yet another level of potency to the work.
It is a comedy though, and a very funny one at that. The lines are in keeping with the emotional chaos in that it’s not always clear whether we are laughing at Jim, or with him, but that’s fuelled by our own fears too. It’s all however beautifully and sympathetically well played out.
Wonderfully quirky and idiosyncratic, it won’t be for everyone, but anyone who doesn’t see it is missing out on one of the best performances of the year, and the fact it’s from a relatively unestablished actor and first feature director, just spins our own heads into awe. And ultimately as the Springsteen song goes ‘It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win’ can be taken as war cry to us all to aim to tell our own story, and not live the life that has been dictated to us. Cummings was compelled and inspired to create and tell this story, I’m really looking forward to his next projects, and hearing your stories too.
8/10 ‘Thunder Road’ is cinemas out now.