‘Thunder Road:’ A Storm of Empathy Hits Hard In Jim Cummings’ Feature Debut [Review]

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By the time he’s done bearing his jittery, honest, profane soul in front of all of his friends, family, and co-workers as a funeral eulogy goes awry, Officer Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings) begins to dance in front of his mother’s casket. It’s not a normal dance; a bit scatterbrained, awkward, poorly choreographed, lacking any sort of music or rhythm. Eventually Jim tries to play the Bruce Springsteen song “Thunder Road,” one of his mom’s favorites, but, of course, the tape recorder won’t play. So we get the quiet, catastrophic choreography instead.

The moment is gleaming in purpose and gets an ‘A’ for effort. Sure, right after he’s done, Arnaud must go back to his seat where horrified onlookers wonder about what in the world just happened, his daughter both embarrassed and concerned for her seemingly-delusional dad. Things will get rougher from here, as Sideshow Bob is about to step on every rake imaginable because of his funeral breakdown.

Though, it’s not about the meandering blurts of mourning and meaninglessness, or the judging glares from a confused crowd. It’s about that dance; that bizarre, beautiful dance. In about 90 minutes, Cummings is about to take us down an unfortunately real road, the “Thunder Road.” In his writing and directorial debut (and feature acting, editing, and scoring), the versatile craftsman takes his 2016 Sundance-award winning short film of the same name and structure and packs in a journey as real as it is alarming. The film is all at once a genuine, crowd-pleasing barnstormer and an uncomfortably identifiable personal theme park 4D experience.

It’s rare for a budding artist to be so involved in his art, doing literally everything from acting to directing, writing, editing and music composition. Though while watching it, it’s clear “Thunder Road” stems from a refreshing, singular vision. Appropriately having filmed his work in Austin, Cummings shares the same deft ability writer/director Richard Linklater does for peeling back the delicate humanity that links us, warts and all, and throwing in the rush of a big cinematic moment that allows us to escape, if only for a brief moment, before we look back at the mirror’s image we see in the well-meaning, if flawed characters. Like Linklater, Cummings shows he’s a humane director of the finest order.

Actually, Cummings’ film would make for a killer double feature with Andrew Bujalski‘s August release “Support the Girls,” a blast of dragon’s fire in feminist empathy where a genuinely good person (Regina Hall) must deal with a crumbling day around her, a series of unfortunate events navigated by someone above, but not immune to, its aftereffects.

Though, Cummings’ Officer Arnaud is partly responsible for his Jobian quest. He’s already wearing his emotions on his sleeves and over his hands like an angsty teen in a 1994 Gap ad when we meet him, he lacks a filter and he’s in the middle of completing a divorce with his wife (Jocelyn DeBoer) where there is clearly no love lost. After his otherworldly catharsis in the form of the fragmented speech and strut, the emotional police officer goes from losing his mom to having a bad encounter on a drunk-and-disorderly call that gets him in trouble at work. Then, a video copy of the funeral fracas gets around in his family court case for custody of his daughter. A few other missteps flowing from the funeral service leave Arnaud up a creek without a paddle, with only the watchful eye of close friend and fellow officer Nate (a splendid Nican Robinson) and his reserved-if-caring daughter Crystal (a great Kendal Farr) to balance him.

The film lives and dies on Cummings’ performance, and it’s quite marvelous he was able to pull off so much with his acting while manning so many duties behind the camera. All at once, he’s able to load the grief and tumult of his lot and his decisions into a largely-comedic performance. It’s like of the lead character from “Manchester By the Sea” was played by a slightly more-reserved Jim Carrey.

Though the sky might be falling, “Thunder Road” swirls about the tragicomedy of Officer Arnaud’s plight with ease. It’s hard to really forge a film that can wreck you and play with such liveliness. Though, that tends to encompass life, doesn’t it? It’s the fart at the funeral, the gallows humor that gets you through another morbid day of headlines, the jog back to a gut-busting memory while the world falls apart around you. If anything, Cummings allows his film to fill in every rigid nook and cranny of the grieving process, all the dumb, pointless mistakes we make along the path of coping and all the people that keep us afloat despite ourselves until we can get back on our feet.

“Thunder Road” rolls in as a storm of empathy that allows us to latch onto an exaggerated story that still plays to everyone in the audience. It’s not hard to get people to care about characters and events that aren’t real, but it is hard to make them relate. As soon as Arnaud breaks down and cuts loose in the middle of his mother’s funeral, we’re appalled. Not just by how squirmy it is, but by how readily we see ourselves in every healing dance move. [A]

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