Netflix UK film review: Thunder Road (2018)
Mark Harrison | On 25, Sep 2019
Director: Jim Cummings
Cast: Jim Cummings, Kendal Farr, Nican Robinson, Jocelyn DeBoer, Macon Blair
Watch Thunder Road online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Taken on their own, the first 12 minutes of Thunder Road may be the best film of the year. This Kickstarter-funded character study starts by remounting the short film that inspired it. As in that film, writer, director, and star Jim Cummings plays police officer Jim Arnaud, who hysterically eulogises his late mother in one excruciatingly great unbroken take.
The original short sees him sing the titular Bruce Springsteen song, his mother’s favourite, in front of the bemused mourners. Setting the tone in spite of not having the music rights this time, the feature-length version frustrates his well-meaning gesture in a whole new way. In any case, we then follow Jim as he continues to cope (or rather, not cope) with his grief as only he can.
In its 92-minute incarnation, Thunder Road comes with the unusual credit of being “Written, Directed and Performed” by Cummings, who is on-screen for most of the running time in addition to his duties behind the camera. While it’s a stunning debut feature by anyone’s standards, it’s his performance that’s truly unforgettable.
Initially looking like Tom Cruise playing Basil Fawlty, Cummings shows jaw-dropping range from the very first moment to the last parting shot. At times, the character may seem quite deranged, and in the current climate, he’s not going to go over so well with everyone, even if the film is all about those problems. It’s hard to find the hyperbole to describe how much this writer lovesnhis extraordinarily versatile performance.
While Cummings has copped to being influenced by British comedy characters like Alan Partridge, Jim Arnaud is a superbly realised mass of contradictions who most often has you laughing to keep from crying. As writer and director, Cummings has an innate handle on what’s funny and what’s tragic about Jim; as a performer, he uses that to navigate seismic tonal shifts on a dime. He’s the sort of character who would have adapted just as well to several seasons of television as he does to this movie.
The story follows him through a messy divorce from his unfaithful wife, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer), during which he has to fight to maintain shared custody of their daughter, Crystal (Kendall Farr). Despite the best efforts of fellow cop Nate (Nican Robinson), Jim’s burgeoning nervous breakdown render him incapable of dealing with his problems and unwilling to talk about them with either friends or mental health professionals.
Making the most of the character, the film has far less tonal whiplash than you’d expect. Unavoidably, it peaks right at the start, but Cummings’ innovative direction maintains the same clenched-up emotional intrigue all the way through. As in the bravura one-take opener, the camera closes in on Jim whenever he starts anxiously rabbiting away, not only bringing us uncomfortably near to him but also closing the walls of the frame around his frantic flapping.
That said, there are one or two speedbumps in the transition to a full feature. Some reviewers have said that the film might as well be a one-man show, although that can be counted as a criticism as well as a plaudit. Certainly, one of the aforementioned supporting characters remains far too underdeveloped for the film to earn one of the third-act plot developments. As a result, the ending winds up feeling even more ambiguous than was probably intended.
Even so, it’s just about forgivable in the context of a film that so brilliantly and sensitively explores the idea of fragile masculinity. Right up to the end, Thunder Road has huge sympathy in showing a cop in crisis, peppering his tragicomic fiasco with as many heart-wrenching moments as there are hilarious ones. It’s unmissable for Jim Cummings’ performance alone, but this is a film that will stay with you too.
Thunder Road is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.