Film Review – Thunder Road (2019)

Everyone grieves differently”…
Thunder Road is a heartfelt, moving, surprisingly funny character study of police officer, Jim Arnaud (played by writer and director Jim Cummings), grieving the loss of his mother and fighting for the affection of his daughter.

In 2016, aspiring filmmaker Jim Cummings wrote a short film whilst on the train to work (also titled Thunder Road) that, after a matter of months premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. However, despite its acclaim, Cummings struggled to get funding to make a feature-length version, so instead financed the film himself, via Kickstarter, and shot the film for $190,000 in Austin, Texas over a 14-day period.

The result in many ways, is an exploration into a mental breakdown from the protagonist Jim. It opens with Officer Arnaud giving a eulogy for his mother to the tune of (or not to the tune of, as the recording ironically doesn’t work) Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen. This scene is effectively shot-to-shot the same as Cumming’s original short, it is a brilliant and unforgettable opening that touches on the work’s central topics: grief, mental health, and drug abuse. Whilst we never actually hear Springsteen’s song, it’s themes are at the heart of the narrative.

Jim’s mother used to sing it to him before bed as a child, and like much of the Boss’s music, the setting is small-town America. Springsteen sings about escaping, “these two lanes will take us anywhere”, something that both Jim and his mother have never been able to achieve. However, by the film’s conclusion, Jim and his daughter do manage to escape, with the narrative coming full circle; it’s a moving and fitting end set to a beautiful strings cover of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love.

The film’s actual score only appears in a few scenes; a moving church organ-like sound bellows, often louder than the character’s dialogue, signifying that Jim is still clearly grieving. One of the film’s key motifs is mental health; in an early scene, Jim aggressively confronts a homeless man with clear mental health issues after he spits at him. There are clear parallels between them as Jim spits at his mother’s eulogy, and again during his breakdown outside the police station where he ends up shouting violently at his coworkers in his underwear. Whilst these scenes have some comedic moments thanks to Cummings’s witty script and mannerisms, they additionally work as a poignant comment on homelessness and mental health in America, two issues that are so inherently linked, and how anyone could be one breakdown away from living on the streets.

Cummings also tackles drug addiction, namely the Opioid Crisis where Painkillers such as Oxycontin were pushed by large pharmaceutical companies leading to mass opium addiction nationwide. Once the mistake was realised, the drug was pulled, but the damage was of course already done with thousands of people resorting to buying heroin off the streets. In Thunder Road, it is mentioned that Jim’s mother had a knee problem, and that her dance studio was located next to the “old drugs store”.This is a subtle hint to a drugs overdose, and directly foreshadows later events in the narrative.Thunder Road is an extremely impressive debut from writer, director, and star Jim Cummings and his central performance and witty dialogue are integral to the film’s appeal. He deftly balances humour and grief throughout to create a poignant and honest study of mental health and loss.

Comedy, Drama | USA, 2018 | 15 | Netflix, DVD, Digital Download | Vertigo Releasing | Dir.Jim Cummings | Kendal Farr, Nican Robinson, Jocelyn DeBoer, Macon Blair, Bill Wise, Jim Cummings