We first meet bumbling Texan cop Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings, also writer and director) at his mother’s funeral, in uniform and battling with a pink toy CD player. When he is called to give a eulogy in his siblings’ absence, he stumbles through a few awkward anecdotes: “She was a registered public accountant, and ran the local dance academy until 2009”. Then the time comes to perform a tribute to his mother with her favourite song, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’, but the CD fails to work. Grief stricken and a little desperate, he decides to continue the dance in silence. In a single long take, the spectacle of the silent and absurd eulogy is agonising, and lasts longer than is comfortable. But like most train wrecks, you can’t look away.
This bizarre opening scene is also the entirety of Jim Cumming’s short of the same name which won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2016. In this feature-length expansion, nothing seems to go right for little Jimmy boy: his marriage has fallen apart and on top of a divorce — he must battle for joint custody of his young daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr, an excellent performance) who is disinterested and embarrassed by him. Unable to keep his emotions about his collapsing family life in check, he blows up in front of his entire precinct and loses his job. Thunder Road is the epitome of the first two (dare I say cliched?) lines of Coldplay’s ’Fix You’: “when you try your best and you don’t succeed”. I don’t necessarily mean the film itself, which captured me with it’s intriguing and off-center portrayal of grief: But that the lyrics somewhat evoke the awkward tragedy of Jim’s character. It’s more like his theme song. From the very first scene to the very last, as the film jumps from one awkward encounter to the next, it was these words which sung through my mind. Oh, Jim.
A narrative like this could easily fall into a tragic-porn trap, but it’s slyly funny. It’s kind of like the sad puppy counterpart to The Lonely Island’s Hot Rod (2007), except this time, the moustache is real. Cumming’s performance as Jim is the forlorn descendent of Rod Kimble’s unearned optimism and absurdity. The physicality — his hands on his cocked hips; the drop of his shoulders; the twitch of his moustache — and deadpan delivery of his voice makes sure the audience can see how pathetic this character is (he tries so hard!!), yet he remains endearing, in a way that makes you want to protect him, maybe even root for him.
I remember there being other people in the film—Nate (Nican Robinson), his touchingly supportive best friend; his explosive ex-wife Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer) — and there was probably even a score (also by Jim Cummings) or some kind of defined cinematic aesthetic (cinematography by Lowell A. Meyer). But it was Cumming’s performance as Jim that I was mesmerised by. Thunder Road is a very bare-bones film, though this isn’t to its detriment. Moulded by Cummings as writer, director, co-editor and star, he’s able to stand out, given the space he needs to explore the character’s psyche: what leads to a man performing a tears-and-snot filled dance at a funeral? And what happens next?
As he openly cries and grieves throughout the narrative (to Nate and to himself), the film breaks down any macho masculinity image usually given to police figures (such as the John McClane action hero type that Jake Peralta from Brooklyn Nine-Nine idolises. Note: B99 also breaks down this image. Andy Samberg strikes again!). To see a man in crisis, falling to pieces and frantically putting himself together again with sticky tape is a sight to behold. With him every step of the way, at a particularly low point, Nate has his ‘I will try to fix you’ moment with baseball in the backyard, hard liquor and cigars. Contrastly, at the end of the film Jim has an equally profound experience at the ballet with Crystal. The look of awe on Crystal’s face as she takes in the ballerinas, the relief on his when we realise he did something right. It’s a nice contrast to the disastrous performance at the beginning of the film, which was met with an awkward silence, and Crystal in tears of mourning, and most likely embarrassment, after witnessing her father humiliate himself. But in this last scene, Jim finally wins. Not all hope is lost, in the end. Maybe he even… succeeds.
Thunder Road is now showing in select Australian cinemas (18 April – Melbourne & Perth) (25th April – Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide & Hobart).
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently undertaking an Honours thesis in Screen Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.