Blog Directory CineVerse: Dancing to an offbeat (but awfully funny) vibe

Dancing to an offbeat (but awfully funny) vibe

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

In 2018, actor and filmmaker Jim Cummings remade what was originally a short film into an independent feature-length drama, Thunder Road, for which he served as the writer, director, and lead actor. Thunder Road earned critical acclaim when it premiered at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, securing the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature, and for good reasons: The movie serves as a fantastic character study, spotlighting Jim Arnaud—a police officer who confronts a whirlwind of personal and professional obstacles, all while grappling with the recent loss of his mother. Themes of grief, fatherhood, and the intricacies of existence are thoughtfully explored, drawing viewers into an emotional journey of self-discovery.

At its core, the picture centers on the fragile but flowering bond between Jim Arnaud and his young daughter, Crystal. As a devoted single father, Jim's attempts to nurture and connect with Crystal become entangled with his own emotional turmoil and impulsive tendencies, resulting in a captivating blend of laughter and heartache.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion on Thunder Road, conducted last week.

What helps Thunder Road stand out as a memorable low-budget indie is that it’s fueled by a distinctive fusion of drama and humor, impressively blending moments of vulnerability, tenderness, and authentic affection between Jim and his daughter. The narrative deftly contrasts these scenes with instances of raw emotional outbursts and social awkwardness, most notably showcased in the unforgettable opening sequence, where Jim delivers a heartfelt eulogy at his mother's funeral.

Speaking of that opening, it was shot in one incredible 10-minute-long single take, which is impressive for a feature-length debut by a filmmaker and a choice that rivets our attention on Cummings’ standout performance.

Cummings isn’t afraid to make us squirm and wince as Jim humiliates himself in one awkward encounter after another, illustrating this character as teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown from start to finish and lacking a filter to control words and impulses that get him into serious trouble. This is a film designed to elicit laughs, but it can become uncomfortable after a while snickering at this unfortunate soul’s predicaments. The filmmakers have to be careful that they don’t appear to be piling on and pouring salt in the wound.

Notably, the narrative is more a series of strung-together vignettes, which portray Jim as increasingly unhinged and lacking the self-restraint and foresight to prevent his downfall, than a traditional plot, although there’s a clear catalyst that sets the gears in motion right at the opening (his mother’s death) and a ray of hope epilogue that suggests his streak of self-inflicted catastrophes is coming to an end (his daughter seems smitten with ballet, which would have pleased her late grandmother).

Cummings cleverly gets around the sticky widget of securing and affording music rights to the titular song by Bruce Springsteen by having Jim fail spectacularly to play the CD during the funeral, which exacerbates his embarrassment exponentially when he attempts to dance without music.

Thunder Road’s major thematic tenet is that the wounds of grief heal slowly, and sometimes never heal fully. Jim is an emotionally wounded man in the wake of his mother’s death, and he blames himself for taking her for granted. Trying to process this anguish and reckon with his regrets is taxing enough, but he also must handle a fatherhood and divorce crisis which quickly balloons into a job crisis.

Lesson learned #2: We can be our own worst enemy. Jim digs an increasingly deeper hole for himself as the story unfolds by saying inappropriate things and not controlling his temper. As with his mother, he doesn’t follow the advice of his lawyer and he jeopardizes his fatherly visitation rights, for example.

This film also espouses the importance of breaking a cycle of familial failure. We learn that Jim’s mother committed suicide and had her own serious flaws and that Jim rejected his mom. Now, that pattern threatens to continue between his daughter and himself, and Jim must find a way to connect with Crystal.

The difficulty men face processing emotions is also effectively explored. Jim ignores his supervisor’s orders to stay home following his mom’s death, which ultimately leads to his firing. Jim tries hard to make things right at work and with his daughter, but he makes things worse by applying a narrow-visioned masculine approach and old-fashioned family values to complex issues. 

Brian Eggert of Deep Focus Review wrote: “Cummings shows Jim’s most apparent personal failures with and desire to understand the women in his life: his regrets about everything he didn’t say to his mother; his inability to bond with his daughter; his downright antagonistic relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife, who he not-so-subtly wishes would get hit by a train.”

Similar works

  • Garden State
  • About Schmidt
  • The Descendants
  • The Climb
  • Eighth Grade
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • The King of Staten Island

Other films directed by Jim Cummings

  • The Wolf of Snow Hollow
  • The Beta Test

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